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Biological Data Storage In Your DNA

DNA DataGenome mapping and sequencing has led to the ability to create a data memory from DNA. In the electronics world, data is translated to binary bits and stored as electrons in silicon. For biological memory, the same data is converted to a code and written out as DNA.

Harvard researchers have created a process in which the four chemicals of DNA, called bases, are used to store data. Much like digital data storage where data is a “one” or a “zero”, the DNA storage is coded as “A” (adenine), “G” (guanine), “C” (cytosine) or “T” (thymine) corresponding to the DNA bases. The Harvard test case used a digitized version of a book, some illustrations and a short Java program to demonstrated that a variety of data types can be stored and retrieved. Their method consisted of translating the digital zeros into either the A or C of the DNA, and the ones into the G or T.

The efforts to use genetic material for data storage goes back nearly a decade. The first success came in 2003 when a team of engineers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory created micro-organisms with Disney’s “It’s a small world” in their DNA. In 2010, scientist Craig Venter created the first synthetic cell and wrote his name in the DNA. Rather than using living cells which may be subject to mutations or other changes, the new process developed at Harvard uses a salt like substance.

The remarkable aspect of the new process is the amount of data which can be stored. It’s possible to put the contents of the entire internet into a device the size of pair of dice. The recent experiment was much simpler. They used a digitally encoded book of about 5MB and high speed gene sequencer to assemble the DNA strands into the proper order. Unlike today’s electronic storage, DNA memory is very similar to magnetic tape. The information is stored serially and must be retrieved serially as well.

The other drawback is that it’s a time consuming process. Even with the most advanced sequencing machine, it takes about a day per megabyte to write the data and even longer to read it back. Cost is also a factor before this becomes readily available. But the price is dropping quickly as more breakthroughs are made. In 2001, the price was about $10,000 per million base pairs and in 2012 this has dropped to 10 cents, which is equivalent to about a dollar per megabyte.

In comparison, a solid state drive (SSD) costs less than a dollar per gigabyte, but can only store about 250 GB. (See our review of 1TB external HDD under $50 )

It’s expected DNA storage will be used for initially for archival storage of books, medical data, financial information, music, video and photographs. Unlike electronic or optical CD storage, the DNA does not degrade over time making it an excellent choice for long term requirements. It may be that in the next 10 to 15 years this will be available to consumers as the technology improves and the prices drops.

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