The Future of Data Storage: Digital Information Stored in DNA

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Free space has become a rarity these days; there is not much free space available, either it be to store your new clothes collection, to construct a megastructure or precisely speaking to store the tons of data created every day.

Forgetting about the former problems, focusing on the latter, we come to see that it is a major issue need to be dealt with promptly. For how would you feel, if you somehow lost your ability to remember anything, not what happened a minute ago, or perhaps yesterday or maybe something that happened four years ago. You will not be able to function properly; computers and other devices work on the same principle; retrieving and storing the data.

There must be some sort of storage medium to hoard the constant flow of digital information, for the technology to serve its purpose. Therefore, several technologies are being devised and have been devised to curb the problem of storage.

But the current method, seems completely extraordinary!! Using DNA, the nature’s hard drive, to store data. Who knew Biology would come to rescue computer science.

As stated earlier, DNA can be used a medium for storage of data. It may seem implausible, and the idea might sound bizarre, it is nevertheless possible. For the only way to store 10,000 gigabytes of data on the head of a pin, is through DNA.

The idea was first suggested by a Soviet scientist Mikhail Niemen in 1964, who identified that we could use the efficient and compact structure of DNA not only to store biological information but anything else we wanted.

Initially the thought was passed on as a joke and a couple of bioinformaticians shared a good laugh at it while being drunk.

Among them was the legendary person who successfully realized the whole idea in 2011; Nick Goldman. Neither him nor his partner, Ewan Birney in EBI (European bioinformatic Institute), remember exactly how they came up with the revolutionary idea of storing all world’s knowledge in synthetic DNA.

All they could tell was that the idea struck them at the bar of Gastwerk Hotel in Hamburg, and that many beers were involved. They may or may not have scrawled their ideas on a napkin. “It must have involved a pen or pencil because I can’t think without holding one,” says Goldman. “It would’ve involved a lot of hands from me,” says Birney. (Yong “DNA Storage: The code that could save civilization”).

This proposition was stimulated by the fact that scientists would soon start stockpiling more genetic information than they could manage to store. A cataclysm for EBI, which stores genomic data from labs all over the world, and science generally.

Therefore, over drinks Goldman and Birney pondered over the issue coming up with the solution that the old hardware can no longer serve the storage purpose, some other nano-technology had to be discovered.

And the answer was there all along, DNA! With its robust, compact structure, DNA serves as a dense medium for inflexible, high latency information storage and is often readable despite degradation in non-ideal conditions over a millennium.

Henceforth, Shakespeare’s Sonnet, excerpts of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech and a .jpg photo of EBI [a total of 760 kilobytes in computer] was successfully stored/encoded on DNA (Goldman Group, “European Bioinformatics Institute”).

Now the obvious question that comes to mind is, how is this whole mechanism of encoding and retrieving works, how at present, is the nature’s archive used to store digital data? This is explicitly explained by George M. Church and Yuan Gao in their research article published in Science Express in 2012.

They encoded book onto DNA by first converting it into html format and then reading it in the form of bits. For this they had to devise a way to convert DNA base pairs Adenine [A], Guanine [G], Cytosine[C] and Thymine[T] to machine language of binaries, 0’s and 1’s. This was done by converting individual bits to A or C for 0’s and G or T for 1’s and then reading the 19 bits long numbers consecutively. This way they were able to store a whole book in a small amount of DNA, emphasizing the dense nature of the archive.

A recent study states, only 4 grams of DNA can store a year’s worth data of the entire world!! This is possible due to the complimentary base pairs, A, T, C and G. As A pairs, up with T and G with C, these two combinations can be reversed; T with A and C with G, manifesting how a large amount of data can be stored in a small space.

The present storage devices ranging from floppy disks to hard drives and Universal serial bus [USB] can store up to 4 TB [Terabytes] of data. This value, compared to the annual data growth of 3.77 Zettabytes [10,00000000 terabytes], is quite small.

Meaning tons of such devices will be required in the future to cope up with the fastest growing semiconductor technology. Which is neither sustainable nor efficient, as apart from enough storage capacity, the data is to be stored in such a way as to be quick to access and efficient to manage.

And the data centers today are not equipped to do so, handling anticipated influx of data every day and channeling it smoothly is something yet to be conquered, as stated by Senior Vice President, Mark Whitby at Seagate Technology in an interview with TechRadar Pro.

Therefore, the compact structure of DNA, not only curbs the problem of storing stockpiles in a small space but ensures an efficient method to access and channel it, by reading and writing the triplet sequence of base pairs.

Previously, several researches have been made, mainly revolving around the idea how the storage mechanism in DNA works, very few targeting synthetic DNA, as a potential information storage tool.

A breakthrough was observed in 2011 and 2013, when researches manifested the diversity of DNA, storing various type of data at the same time reduced the error percentage of retrieving data to 0%. Church, Gao and Kosuri, first converted 11 JPG images, an html coded draft of an approximately 53,000 words book and a JavaScript program into a 5.27-megabit bit stream; reflecting the diverse nature of nature’s archive.

Data archiving using DNA, sees a bright future, since recent research conducted on July 7th, 2017 by Microsoft researchers in collaboration with the University of Washington, showed successful storage 200 megabytes of data on DNA strand. This not only shows the increase in the amount of data being stored but the space it was stored in, just a drop in the test tube!!

And an even more astounding breakthrough, defeating the previous one by thousand folds was by Harvard, successfully cramming 700 Terabytes onto 1 gram of DNA! Who knew future would be about thinking small 😉

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