DNA can efficiently store data for thousands of years

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Researchers have managed to store data onto DNA and successfully read it off without errors, suggesting that this particular technology not only holds a lot of potential for mass storage but also for longer periods of time.

One of the primary reasons for looking at DNA for storage of information is its ability to store quite a lot of information than hard drives and other traditional means of storage can ever store and the longevity of data.

Researchers including Robert Grass, Ph.D., of ETH Zurich, successfully encoded 83 kilobytes of text from the Swiss Federal Charter from 1291 and the Method of Archimedes from the 10th century onto DNA. The team then encapsulated the DNA in silica spheres and warmed it to nearly 160 degrees Fahrenheit for one week, which is the equivalent of keeping it for 2,000 years at about 50 degrees. When they decoded it, it was error-free.

One of the primary issues with currently storage technologies is that they wear out in a few decades and that’s where DNA comes in, researchers say.

“A little after the discovery of the double helix architecture of DNA, people figured out that the coding language of nature is very similar to the binary language we use in computers,” says Grass. “On a hard drive, we use 0s and 1s to represent data, and in DNA, we have four nucleotides A, C, T and G.”

But, as compared to hard drives, DNA has two major advantages: size and durability. An external hard drive about the size of a paperback book can back up five terabytes of information and might last 50 years. In theory, a fraction of an ounce of DNA could store more than 300,000 terabytes. And, from archaeological finds, scientists know that DNA from hundreds of thousands of years ago can still be sequenced today.

After having demonstrated the successful encoding and decoding and storage potential of thousands of years, researchers are now tackling the next problem – indexing of the data.

“In DNA storage, you have a drop of liquid containing floating molecules encoded with information,” Grass says. “Right now, we can read everything that’s in that drop. But I can’t point to a specific place within the drop and read only one file.” So, he and his colleagues are currently developing ways to label specific pieces of information on DNA strands to make them searchable.

However, DNA based storage is in its infancy and the costs involved run into thousands for even just a few megabytes of storage. This means that you won’t be able to get your hands onto this technology anytime soon at a consumer level.