Genetic data storage

By | Science & Technology
Columbia Engineering Computer Science professor Yaniv Elrich and his associate scientist Dina Zielinski devised a new coding technique which aims to maximise the storage potential of DNA. Credit@Pixabay

In human beings and other organisms, there is a hereditary material in each cell known as deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA as it is more commonly known. According to scientific research DNA may be found in the cell nucleus which contains a cell’s genetic material. DNA is known to store coded information which is comprised of four key chemicals, also known as the four nucleotide bases of a DNA strand: adrenaline (A), guanine(G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). The order of these four chemicals, also known as a sequence, provides the essential information which may facilitate the building and maintaining of organisms. To illustrate this further, these four chemicals are akin to the letters in the alphabet and their sequence may be similar to the way the letters in an alphabet might form words and sentences.

Due to DNA’s potential to store complex data, scientists have endeavoured to maximise its storage capacity.  New light seems to be shed on the possible uses of DNA through a recent journal publication from the Columbian University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In this publication the researchers claimed to have made a breakthrough in maximising the data storage potential of DNA. According to the journal, the research team developed an algorithm which may be used to encode data files directly onto DNA. Leading this study was Columbia Engineering Computer Science professor Yaniv Elrich and his associate scientist Dina Zielinski.

In human beings and other organisms, there is a hereditary material in each cell known as deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA as it is more commonly known. Credit@Pixabay

In human beings and other organisms, there is a hereditary material in each cell known as deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA as it is more commonly known. Credit@Pixabay

Together, the pair of researchers formulated an algorithm which seems to have the potential to store large amounts of data directly onto DNA’s four base nucleotides. Elrich and Zielinsk dubbed this algorithmic process of encoding data the “DNA Foundation technique” which aims to achieve the theoretical maximum for information stored in DNA. To demonstrate this algorithm, the scientists encoded several files, including a full computer operating system, onto DNA for retrieval at a later time. In the study conducted, researchers Elrich and Zielinski selected six files to encode on the DNA nucleotides. The files selected were a complete graphical operating system of 1.4Mbytes, a French film from 1895, a $50 Amazon Gift Card, a computer virus, a Pioneer plaque and a 1948 study by information theorist Claude Shannon.

These files were then compressed into a single master file and split into strings of binary code, comprised of ones and zeros. This information was then translated into genetic code and mapped onto the four nucleotide bases in DNA. To test if this information was readable, the researchers sent the data to a bioscience lab which specialises in converting digital data into biological data. To facilitate decoding of this data, so the content stored may be retrieved, modern sequencing technology was used to decode the genetic data. The results of this study were a success as the genetic data encoded onto the DNA nucleotides was retrieved successfully. This outcome seems to have provided valuable insight into the potential of DNA as a storage medium.

Researchers from the Columbia University of Engineering and Applied Science devised an algorithm to encode data on to DNA. This is known as the DNA Foundation Technique Credit@2017, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Researchers from the Columbia University of Engineering and Applied Science devised an algorithm to encode data on to DNA. This is known as the DNA Foundation Technique Credit@2017, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Elrich and Zielinsk seem to have selected DNA as a data storage medium for it’s ultra-compact size and potential to last several thousands of years if kept in a cool dry location. Furthermore, the researchers believe the probability of DNA degrading, like forms of storage currently used today, seems to be remarkably low. This seems to be largely due to DNA’s crucial role in the biological make-up of organisms. As DNA seems to be highly dense, scientists may be able to store significant volumes of data as research into this field continues. With this discovery, scientists may seek to improve the reading and writing process and streamline this technique further. In the future, genetic data storage may be the standard for mass data storage.

How might this study expand the functionality of DNA?

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