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Is DNA the answer to our problems of data storage?

In our current age we want to store so much data that technology cannot keep up. A promising solution seems to be data storage in synthetic DNA. Scientific American, which ranks DNA data storage among the ten most promising technologies of 2019, explains that handling the information generated by billions of Google searches and YouTube videos takes huge amounts of energy and does not meet the requirements of sustainability. Moreover, as it is estimated that the current magnetic or optical data-storage systems cannot last for more than a century, we will at some point have a serious data-storage problem.

DNA-based data storage is considered an alternative for hard drives. The process, however, is not easy to grasp. As Scientific American explains: “DNA—which consists of long chains of the nucleotides A, T, C and G—is life’s information-storage material. Data can be stored in the sequence of these letters, turning DNA into a new form of information technology [...] DNA can accurately stow massive amounts of data at a density far exceeding that of electronic devices. The simple bacterium Escherichia coli, for instance, has a storage density of about 1019 bits per cubic centimetre […]. At that density, all the world’s current storage needs for a year could be well met by a cube of DNA measuring about one meter on a side”.

The European Bioinformatics Institute is at the forefront of developments. One of their studies on DNA storage explains that their institute developed a code that can turn digital files into DNA language. The coded information can then be fed into DNA synthesis machines, which will turn it into physical material. The researchers explain that at the end of their experiment, they had a small tube with synthetic DNA which, among others, contained Shakespeare’s sonnets and footage of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”.

Explaining that “because DNA is so robust, the material will last for many thousands of years if it is kept safe, dry and cool”, storing man’s achievements and knowledge in DNA allows for a much better preservation of key wisdom than hard drives or any other conventional storage device. The researchers emphasize that DNA storage is external to human beings. In the unlikely event that synthetic DNA molecules enter the human body, they would be rejected and cannot become part of a person’s DNA.

Twist Bioscience, the California-based commercial market leader, aims to reduce the costs of DNA storage to $100 per terabyte – the same price as storage on a hard drive. However, as the company explains, DNA storage has numerous advantages: it is nature’s permanent data storage; dense and compact enough to fit the entire internet in a shoebox; and it has extremely low energy storage that uses less than a light bulb’s worth of power per year.

Although Twist Bioscience and others are heavily investing in the technology, experts feel that DNA storage will not be realised in a cost-effective manner in the very near future. However, it appears the only way to store knowledge forever, as aptly described in a blog post:

“If civilization ended today, our Information Age would leave no relics. Our successors would hardly recognize that the 21st century was a time of unprecedented production and consumption of digital data—let alone the data’s purpose or its significance to our society. Whereas other world-shaping epochs like the Industrial Revolution would be recognizable by their ruins, the Digital Revolution would be invisible to history because its structures are virtual, and its infrastructure is disintegrating”.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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