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Is DNA the Next Big Thing in Digital Data Storage?

Katie Fegan discusses the future of digital data storage in a fast-growing world, and the crucial role DNA could play in securing this.

With a whopping 2.5 million trillion bits of data generated worldwide each day, there is no denying that we are fast outgrowing today’s storage systems. We could squeeze more information onto hard drives and tapes. Even if the storage capacity of contemporary hardware is increased to the petabyte range, millions of units would be needed to archive the world’s digital data.

Scientists are on the hunt for new ways to store information efficiently and indefinitely. While companies like Hitachi are developing memory crystals for 5D optical data storage, some of the biggest names in the world are taking inspiration from one very famous molecule: deoxyribonucleic acid.

Arguably the most important molecule on Earth, DNA has evolved over billions of years to store genetic information with a remarkably high storage density. Studies show that a single gram of the stuff can hold over 10 billion gigabytes of data – around 10 million times more than the Nimbus ExaDrive, the best solid-state drive on the market. Conveniently, the technology needed to read, write, and manipulate DNA can be found in most biochemistry labs.

The digital file is first translated from binary (a series of 0s and 1s) into genetic code (a series of the nucleotide bases A, T, C, and G). Scientists then use this code to synthesise artificial DNA, which is later preserved in a designated storage facility. Using DNA sequencing, the genetic code can be read and converted back to digital format at will.

The average solid-state drive is essentially a labyrinth of circuit boards and switches housed inside a plastic box. Unlike switches, DNA can be fused with filament and 3D printed into any number of everyday objects. By encoding the printing instructions in the DNA, these inanimate objects can even be designed to carry their own blueprint. Dubbed the ‘DNA of Things’, sequencing this blueprint allows researchers to create copies of the object – just like how cells use the genome, nature’s instruction manual, to self-replicate.

DNA is also incredibly robust. Research suggests that files can be recovered up to 400,000 years after they are stored, far surpassing the lifetime of conventional hardware. If the information of today is to be accessible for generations to come, preserving our digital legacy is critical. This means creating technologies that will stand the test of time. A classic example is the floppy disc: once the cornerstone of data storage, it became obsolete in a matter of decades. As long as DNA-based life exists, DNA-based storage will remain relevant to future civilisations.

Industries are starting to recognise the potential of DNA as a data storage medium. In October 2020, four of the world’s leading biotechnology companies – Twist Bioscience, Illumina, Western Digital, and Microsoft – founded the DNA Data Storage Alliance, an organisation dedicated to advancing the field. Before the technology is commercially viable, however, the cost of DNA synthesis and sequencing must fall. Using data provided by the Alliance, current models predict that we could be synthesising DNA at a cost of $1/ terabyte by the end of the decade.

The next generation of data storage is on the horizon. Perhaps one day this article could be retrieved from a DNA data archive!

From SATNAV Issue 23, pages 4-5.

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