DNA ready to serve as a storage drive

The original new release was first posted on UW Today, written by Jennifer Langston

How can we store as much data as possible on as little ground as possible? That has been the question for years now. In order to boost cloud computing technology, machine learning, and AI development, it is necessary to have a lot of data at hand. That’s why today’s data storage facilities are huge.

If one mentions shrinking data storage the size of a Wallmart super-center into a cube of sugar, people would imagine a next-gen technology, something like a 256GB SD card compared to a regular CD. Scientists from the University of Washington (UW) worked with a much older technology that has been here for millennia. They have now created a working system, which uses DNA as the storage facility. It is such a success because they were able to make the total loop – upload the files, store them, and then successfully retrieve them. No information was lost.

Judge Lloyd Williams of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda adjusts his headphones, April 2, 2002, during one of the court’s first sessions. Image source: voanews.com

The experiment was first done using a fragment of synthetic DNA and four image files. The team did not stop there, and went on with uploading videos onto the DNA. Files from UW’s archives were used, depicting interviews with judges, lawyers, and others who worked on the Rwandan war crimes tribunal.

“Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works — it’s very, very compact and very durable,” said Luis Ceze, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering.

44 trilion gigabytes – that is the amount of data predicted to be stored in computers worldwide by 2020. This figure is ten times bigger, compared to the estimate for the year 2013. It is a clear sign that we are in need of new storage technologies, because data production is growing rapidly.

Fascinating fact about storing information on a DNA segment is the durability. The methods we use now are capable of holding the data for decades, at best. DNA can store its information for centuries, at least. The UW team used a method where they rewritten the binary code of the files into information DNA is used to – sequence of adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine.

“How you go from ones and zeroes to As, Gs, Cs and Ts really matters because if you use a smart approach, you can make it very dense and you don’t get a lot of errors,” said co-author Georg Seelig.

DNA encoding could revolutionize data storage. It still needs a lot of research, but scientists from the University of Washington proved that multi-disciplinary approach might bring great benefits and completely new perspectives. It also shows that innovation does not have to work solely with new technologies, but it can also make its mark by revolutionizing older concepts, or by taking inspiration from the nature.

DNA-storage-close-up (2)
Remember the first image? Well, look again. 10,000 gigabytes can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube.