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DNA Storage is Our Future

Storage is growing and growing. It shows no signs of slowing down. We’re producing more data as more of our applications are producing it – even those you might not consider. If you drive a modern car, then it’ll make use of data storage. Not only is the volume of data we’re creating on a steep rise, but so is the individual file size. Images, videos, documents and more are all becoming more complex. How are we going to store all of this?

The answer likely lies in DNA. As you likely know, DNA stores all information about a living organism. It doesn’t degrade over time, unlike much of our existing data solutions, and it’s very small. As such, researchers and enterprises are currently pouring money into research to try and figure out how DNA can become a mass-market storage solution.

Bear in mind, this isn’t anything new. DNA as storage has been researched for years, but new developments from Columbia University researchers show the possibilities. Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski managed to store six files in 72000 DNA strands. The files included an operating system, a film, and an Amazon gift card.

“We mapped the bits of the files to DNA nucleotides. Then, we synthesized these nucleotides and stored the molecules in a test-tube,” said Erlich, in conversation with ResearchGate. “To pack the information, we devised a strategy that uses mathematical concepts from coding theory. It was this strategy that allowed us to achieve optimal packing, which was the most challenging aspect of the study.”

It’s all well and good being able to store the data, but it’s useless if can’t be retrieved. Amazingly, they could do this without any error. For this they used DNA sequencing and software that translated the genetic code back to binary.

Data storage has improved greatly over the years and utilised many different methods – film, tape and microchips to name a few. While they’ve also improved in reliability, there’s still a question over how future-proof it all is.

As a quick example, you might have had a lot of tapes in your house about fifteen, twenty years ago. Perhaps you still have these in an attic somewhere. But do you have a tape player around to watch them on? As tape players break, get chucked out and are no longer produced, eventually it’s going to become extremely difficult to view the data.

This is one area where DNA is different, on top of the fact that it’s far smaller than traditional storage media (215 petabytes can be stored per gram of DNA). DNA has been around for 3 billion years and humanity isn’t going to lose the ability to read it. “If it does, we will have much bigger problems than data storage,” says Elrich.

Elrich reckons that this technology would probably be available in over a decade. This is still early days – it took over storage media years of research before it became useful for the average consumer. Plus, considering that the DNA synthesis used costs the researchers $3500/MB, the cost is going to need to drop dramatically too.

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