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Need to store 455 billion gigs of data? All it takes is a gram of DNA

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

10 years ago, a 250 gigabyte external drive would've been enough to satisfy most peoples' data storage needs. Fast forward to the present day and a terabyte isn't enough, and as we move forward, we're going to need even more storage space than ever before. 

In fact, by 2017, the total size of digital data in the world is expected to exceed 16 zettabytes (ZB). That statement, on its own, sounds like unimpressive nerdspeak. But it really isn't. To put it into perspective, 1 ZB (1 billion terabytes) is enough space to store 31,212,000 hours of high-definition video - enough to store the entire Netflix catalogue (not just the severely limited Indian one) almost 900 times over.

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The problem is that we're fast running out of space to store all this data.

Typical archival data storage is in the form of magnetic tapes and optical discs. But the capacity and durability of both have left scientists battling to come up with newer, more innovative ways of storing data. Amazingly, like a cheesy fantasy movie, they've found that the answer to our problems may have been within us all along - DNA. 

Now, researchers have demonstrated that the technology, to efficiently store and retrieve data from DNA, is now a reality. 

DNA - the ideal data storage solution

We only discovered DNA, the building blocks of life, in 1859. It took another 84 years before we actually identified its structure. Since then, our understanding of DNA has grown in leaps and bounds, allowing us to manipulate it and use it to identify and profile individuals among countless other uses and applications.

But at its heart, DNA is essentially a database of genetic information. Even better, it's been developed and refined by nature over billions of years, making it incredibly efficient and compact. So, if nature already has a hyper-efficient data storage mechanism for genetic information, scientists figured it could be used to store digital data as well.

The reasons for choosing DNA are manifold. For a start, it's super dense. While the most advanced magnetic tapes can store about 10 GB/mm3 and magnetic discs can manage about 100 GB/mm3, DNA is far more efficient - able to store 1,000,000,000 GB/mm3. A single gram of DNA can theoretically store up to 455 exabytes (one exabyte = 1 billion GB) of data. In 2006, the total storage of the entire internet was just over half this size.

DNA also has the added benefit of being extremely durable. The DNA samples recovered from fossils that are hundreds of thousands of years old stand testament to this. Scientists estimate that, even in harsh conditions, DNA has a half-life of 500 years, making it far more durable than tapes and discs which last a couple of decades at best.

DNA - just another programming code

Storing data in DNA relies on the basic structural similarity of DNA and binary code. While the basic units of binary are 0s and 1s, DNA is made of 4 nucleotides, cytosine (C), guanine (G), adenine (A) and thymine (T).

When stored in digital form, information is converted into strings of 1s and 0s. To go the extra step and store the information in DNA, scientists translated the binary code into sequences of nucleotides.

These sequences can then be synthesised to create DNA strands containing digital data.

Scientists can then read back the data by sequencing the DNA.

The evolution of DNA data storage

The first successful attempt at using DNA to store digital data was in 1999 when a 23 character message was stored on a microdot of DNA. Fast forward to 2012 and researchers at Harvard University showed it was possible to encode a staggering 70 billion copies of a book in a cubic millimetre of DNA.

Just a year later, scientists in the UK showed that the stored information was retrievable by sequencing the DNA. They even managed to store and recover 739 kilobytes of data consisting of text, audio and video in a single strand of DNA.

Now, efforts by researchers at the University of Illinois and a collaborative effort between the University of Washington (UW) and Microsoft have taken the field forward significantly.

The solution to the world’s data storage issues could just be DNA

While the Microsoft-UW collaboration managed to access and re-create specific images stored in a larger DNA data pool, the University of Illinois researchers have shown that parts of the stored data can even be targeted and edited.

Even better, the UW-Microsoft efforts have managed to further improve upon the storage capacity of DNA. They did this by using an audio compression tool called the Huffman code which allows binary to be expressed in shorter ways. This meant that redundancies - replicating the same sequences multiple times in case of errors - could now be done away with.

Not quite there yet

However, while the new breakthroughs are incredibly exciting, it will still be a while before you DNA data storage in daily life. While the cost of the processes involved in DNA data storage are falling every year, it's still a long way away from being commercially viable for the common person.

The speed of the process is also much slower than conventional data storage. While microchips rely on the lightning-fast pace of electrons, DNA data storage involves the actual movement of DNA molecules, a considerably slower process.

With our data storage needs increasing, expect the demand for DNA data storage to increase too. And when demand increases, research and funding will result in a considerably quicker, cheaper process.

So while DNA data storage is currently ideal for archival processes, where speed is not the issue, it may one day leave the confines of large corporations and enter your house.

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First published: 12 April 2016, 12:54 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.