Using DNA for Data Storage


Nowadays, humans produce a huge amount of data at very high rates, which multiply every year. This data is not restricted to our personal computers, but also include the servers of different companies, such as Facebook and Google, taking into account that these servers need multiple giant rooms to be stored in. With the highly accelerated rates of data, it is expected that data storage devices will not be able to cope with these rates after some years; therefore, a data storage alternative must be found.

As DNA is a storage medium for genetic traits and has its own encryption system, the idea of storing data in DNA emerged in the 1990s. To understand how this is going to work, it is important to know that the hard disk that stores the data consists of a number of bits; this hard disk understands the data stored in it through a system called the “Binary System”, which implies that every bit in the hard disk takes one of two values (zero or one).

In such a way, the hard disk considers all the data as 0 or 1, and hence can read them. Luckily, this binary system is very similar to the encryption system of the DNA; however, instead of (zero or one), the DNA consists of four building blocks: Thymine (T), Adenine (A), Guanine (G), and Cytosine (C). So, instead of 10011101110, the encryption turned into AGTTCACCGTA with the same working mechanism and the ability to store data.

A great advantage for such a transformation is that DNA has a very small size with a diameter of 100 micrometers, and at the same time has a very vast storage capacity. It is worth mentioning that only one gram of DNA can store up to 215 Petabytes or 215 million Gigabytes, knowing that the human being has about 600 grams of DNA.

The first application for this idea was in 2012, when a team from Harvard University could store around 5 Gigabytes of data in the format of a book and pictures, and could retrieve them with 100% efficiency! Moreover, in 2013, the experiment was repeated again, but this time the data was 154 poems of Shakespeare and a 26-second sound clip of Martin Luther King’s speech. In 2017, another successful experiment was conducted too confirming that the prospects of DNA data storage are no longer theoretical.

Despite the great success of DNA data storage experiments, scientists still cannot apply the idea on the market, or implement it on a commercial scale due to the very high cost of the techniques used. To be more specific, storing only one Megabyte of data in DNA costs around USD 13,000, and retrieving it costs USD 220, which makes the whole process terribly expensive.

All in all, storing the data in DNA is a revolutionary idea that still faces a lot of problems; however, scientists expect that during the next 50 years all these problems will have been solved and humans will start a new era for data storage.


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