Nature’s data storage

By | Science & Technology

New research demonstrates how DNA may be used to store digital data, potentially solving the digital data growth presently seen. The team have developed a way to encode and retrieve the digital data.

The “digital universe” is increasing radically and the ability to store the information associated with this digital data is needed to be significantly upgraded. By 2020 44 trillion gigabytes of memory is forecast to be stored in data banks, ten times the total in 2013, taking excessive energy and space demands which may be expensive and unreliable, many companies are building new centres to house this data. With the majority of data today stored on magnetic and optical media only modest advancements have been made in these technologies, longevity is an issue as the durability for optical media is around 3 to 5 years and for tape it is around 10 to 30 years. If digital data is to be preserved, significant advances needs be realised in storage density and durability.

The advancement in knowledge on how to utilise DNA as a data storage source has progressed to a level where it is now seemingly a realistic option. The rate of development in synthesising and sequencing data from DNA, may now be surpassing the development of computer chips (Moore’s Law) which is now veritably slowing suggesting the time may have come for new storage technologies to be adopted. The natural sources of DNA are easily available and proven through evolution as a store of vast amounts of information, it also possesses a data density at least 8 times of the best magnetic tape available and is exceptionally durable lasting 500 years even in strident conditions.

New research at the University of Washington and Microsoft by Bornholt and colleagues demonstrated how the space needed to store digital data filling a data centre may be reduced down to the size of a sugar cube. The team composed of computer scientists and electrical engineers may have outlined a system to encode, store and re-read digital data using DNA, millions of times more densely than the best archival technologies today. To show how this may work the team encoded four digital images into DNA, then the data was sequenced (retrieved) random access effective in finding these image files. A small inaccuracy rate was detected for the method, one image of the four had a one-byte inaccuracy which was easily fixed and may be reduced in the future by increasing the reliability of the system by using multiple copies of the data. Furthermore, the team encoded video onto DNA and retrieved it.

The aim of the team ultimately is to create a DNA storage system which may resolve the anticipated need for increased archival storage. To achieve this, the team developed a way of converting the ones and zeros of digital data into the building blocks of DNA; adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. Co-author Georg Seelig commented, “How to go from ones and zeros to A’s, G’s, C’s and T’s really matters because if a smart approach is used, it might be made to be dense and have few corrections.” By using addresses encoded into the DNA (like the table of contents on a CD) this allows the system to easily identify the data being searched for and convert it back into data such as a video or image file.

“This multidisciplinary approach is what makes this project exciting. A diverse set of disciplines are drawn upon to push the boundaries of what may be done with DNA and as a result creating a storage system with unprecedented density and durability.” Said Karin Strauss a Microsoft researcher. “Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA which efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works, it’s compact and durable. We’re essentially repurposing it to store digital data; pictures, videos, documents in a manageable way for hundreds or thousands of years.”

What other lessons from nature may produce more efficient technologies?


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