DNA Storage

DNA : The key to unlimited storage?

By Rishnav Thadani 

March 2017

Today, companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google are struggling to find means to store all their data.  Despite the almost exponential increase in the capacity of conventional hard-drives,  these just do not have the capacity to handle all the data being generated in our connected world.  Hence new solutions to this problem are required, and scientists believe they may have discovered the answer.

Structure of DNA

The key to storing data may lie in nature’s ancient solution – DNA.  As we know DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the carrier of genetic information in almost all living organisms.  DNA is made up of 4 different bases – and has been compared to an alphabet with four different letters – These four nitrogen bases are adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T).   These four bases connect with each other form long chains.  Much like words, sentences and paragraphs composed of just four letters. It is also similar to the way computers use zeroes and ones to code in the language binary.

According to the latest theories, one gram of DNA can store up to 216 petabytes of data, which is 216,000,000 gigabytes (GB) of data.  This would mean that all of the world’s data can be stored within one kilogram of DNA.

DNA has such great storage capacity because of two reasons.  The first reason is straightforward; the coding units in DNA are about ten times smaller than that in a computer storage drive.  However, the difference in storage capacity is much greater than ten-fold.  This is majorly because of the second advantage of DNA data storage, which is that DNA can be stacked three-dimensionally. Transistors are usually aligned on a flat plane, and even though you can stack them one on top of the other, there is still the problem of the heat they generate.  This limits the number of layers that can be stacked and this is why data storage cannot be done as efficiently in storage drives. Meanwhile DNA, which can easily be twisted and folded, and stacked to any depth, have no problem in storing data three dimensionally.

The conversion of computer files to DNA is intriguing.  At present it is a challenging and time consuming task, but the concept is easy to understand.  To store data in DNA, the important thing that needs to be done is that coding in binary for the computer needs to be converted into A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s for the DNA to store.

Scientists often find it easier to convert the data into a base three system that uses zeroes, ones and twos instead of just zeroes and ones.  This reduces the number of errors in the conversion from ATCG to computer code.

The first attempt of storing data in DNA was made in 1988 when an artist named Joe Davis collaborated with scientists from Harvard to encode data in a bacteria – E. Coli.  They encoded just 35 bits of data, which formed a picture of an ancient German rune which represented life.

The problem with this type of storage as of now is limited reliability.  This however can be easily counter-acted as you can make many copies of the same code because it is highly concentrated and easy to store.

Thus the solution to the problem of data storage has been found in nature itself.  DNA has huge potential as it can store massive amounts of data in little space, and moreover green product.  Once DNA for data storage can be commercialised, we can look forward to almost limitless storage possibilities for our data.