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Nucleic acid memory: Advancing data storage with DNA

Files and photos that are currently stored in data centers can be stored in DNA provided researchers can produce enough of it at a low cost.

DNA quadruplex. Image by Thomas Splettstoesser, CC BY-SA 3.0,
DNA quadruplex. Image by Thomas Splettstoesser, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Back in 2017, Digital Journal ran a feature on a potential solution to the data storage dilemma (that one day we’ll run out of storage capacity, given the vast amount of digital data that is being accumulated). This was in the form of synthetic DNA.

The concept was exciting and promising. Yet it hasn’t yet come to pass. This is due to the limitation of scale – a problem that might just have been overcome.

The future of data storage lies in DNA microcapsules, according to a study from Eindhoven University of Technology. The Dutch researchers have demonstrated how DNA archival storage is closer to reality as the result of an advancement with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique.

It is predicted that the first synthetic DNA data centre will be operational within five to ten years. Here data will not be in its traditional format of zeros and ones in a hard drive; instead, it will be in the form of the base pairs that make up DNA: AT and CG.

The form the data capture process could take is with new files being encoded via DNA synthesis. In turn, large fields of capsules will be assembled, each capsule packed with a file. A robotic arm would be able to remove a capsule, read its contents and place it back in the correct location.

The DNA would be assembled by joining bases together in a specific order to form synthetically produced strands of DNA.

The storage of data on DNA has previously been demonstrated. However, progress has been hampered by creating DNA to scale.

But why go down this path?

There are several advantages. First, a DNA file can be stored more compactly. Secondly, the lifespan of the data is considerably longer than any current technology permits. A third reason is energy conservation. DNA storage technology would render large, energy-guzzling data centres obsolete.

The key to this is the PCR method. PCR creates millions of copies of the piece of DNA required by adding a primer with the desired DNA code. A weakness is that to read multiple files simultaneously, a technologist needs multiple primer pairs doing their work at the same time. Current technology creates many errors in the copying process.

The researchers have overcome this through the use of capsules. These are microcapsules composed of proteins and a polymer. Having created this, the scientists succeeded in anchoring one file per capsule.

Above 50 degrees Celsius, the capsules seal themselves, allowing the PCR process to take place separately in each capsule using a novel process called ‘thermo-confined PCR’.

After creation, when the temperature is lowered,  the copies detach from the capsule and the anchored original remains, meaning that the quality of the original file does not deteriorate.

The research group have also made the data library easy to search. Each file is given a fluorescent label and each capsule its own colour. A device can then recognize the colours and separates them from each other.

The research appears in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, titled “DNA storage in thermoresponsive microcapsules for repeated random multiplexed data access.”

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Written By

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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