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DNA as a data storage medium: Progress and challenges

Data storage is one of the biggest technological problems (we’ve created more data between 2015 and 2017 than in all of preceding history) and DNA storage is one of the most compelling solutions. It’s a much spoken about subject, but how close is DNA storage to becoming a commercial reality and one that could aid companies with digital transformation projects?

The first significant step was in 2012 when Harvard University geneticists George Church’s research group encoded a 52,000-word book in thousands of snippets of DNA (see: “The Life Hacker“, published in Science).

READ MORE: Scientists place a GIF image inside a living organism’s DNA

A big step was made earlier this year, Science reports. Researchers reported it was possible to encode digital data into DNA. Yaniv Erlich, from Columbia University examined the algorithms needed to encode and decode data onto nucleic acid. Erlich took six files, including a complete computer operating system; a computer virus; a copy of a 1895 movie ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat‘; a study by theorist Claude Shannon on information; and an Apple gift card. These items were converted into binary strings composed of the requite 1s and 0s. The binary code was finally compressed into one master file. This was achieved with the algorithm which was subsequently named DNA fountain.

READ MORE: Computer operating system and movie stored on DNA

The algorithm functioned to randomly package data strings into droplets. The droplets were biologically tagged so they could be later identified for reassembly. The end-product was a digital list composed of 72,000 DNA strands, each 200 bases long. The information was transmitted a text file to the biotechnology company Twist Bioscience (a start-up venture that has also been working with Microsoft). Here DNA strands were synthesized and a drop of DNA, containing the encoded vials, was dispatched back to the research laboratory. The DNA was later decoded using sequencing technology and inputted into a computer. The computer translated the genetic code and reassembled the six original files. The process was successful, and the files contained no errors.

READ MORE: Microsoft exploring DNA storage solution

Through the study the estimated storage capacity of DNA was reported to be 215 petabytes (a mammoth 215 million gigabytes) per single gram of DNA. The study was reported to the journal Science, in a paper headed “DNA Fountain enables a robust and efficient storage architecture.”

The biggest obstacle to the use of DNA will be one of economics and at present the conversion process appears cost prohibitive. Current estimates are a cost of $7000 to synthesize around 2 megabytes of data into DNA and a further $2000 expenditure to read it. To make the process more appealing to businesses and academia, scientists and technologists need to focus is with bringing the expense of conversion down.

From a different approach, researchers at Boise State University are looking into the storage of digital information using nucleic acid memory (NAM). The researchers are motivated by the concern that, by 2040, the demand for global data memory will exceed the world’s supply of silicon. Nucleic acids are molecules that allow organisms to transfer genetic information from one generation to the next. There are two types of nucleic acids: deoxyribonucleic acid (better known as DNA) and ribonucleic acid (better known as RNA). Nucleic acid has, in theory, a volumetric density one thousand times greater than flash memory.

The research remains at any early stage of development; the current status was recently presented to the journal Nature Materials in the paper “Nucleic acid memory.”

A third tranche of research is underway at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). This involves encapsulating the DNA within silica glass spheres via a method called Sol-gel chemistry (a method for producing solid materials from small molecules). The aim is to achieve error-free information recovery, lasting for thousands of years. An update of the research was reported to Angewandte Chemie International Edition, in the paper “Robust Chemical Preservation of Digital Information on DNA in Silica with Error-Correcting Codes.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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