In the article “DNA: The Ultimate Hard Drive” in the August 17 issue of the journal “Science” written by molecular geneticist, George Church, and biological engineer, Sriram Kosuri, both from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and biomedical engineer, Yuan Gao from Johns Hopkins University describe what could be the next data storage medium.

Through a combination of genetic engineering, computer science, and inkjet technology, they were able to store 70 billion copies of their soon to be released book “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA” onto a tiny microfluidic glass chip.  Each 5.27 megabit copy of the book consists of 53,426 words, 11 JPG images and 1 JavaScript program.  The data is encoded as the four nucleic acid bases that make up DNA, “A”, “C”, “G”, “T” within artificially synthesized non-living DNA.

This technology can store 455 exabytes of data in a gram of material or 704 terabytes into a cubic millimeter of material.  That’s 9,100,000,000 times denser than dual layer Blu-ray disc when compared gram-per-gram and 7,598,500,000,000 times denser when compared by volume.  This medium has a theoretical lifespan of hundreds of thousands of years (some theorize more than a billion years), is stable at room temperature, and has a steady-state storage cost of zero.  And, just like data is stored on traditional digital media, the data includes storage addresses, pointers, and error correction, lending to its data integrity that is on par with DVD.

But don’t expect DNA-discs to hit the store shelves anytime soon (memo to self: check to see if the copy write for “DNAD” is still available).  The data is stored sequentially, so random access is not possible, a desirable trait when accessing such a large set of data.  It took several days to write the book and even longer to read it back.  And, the equipment to process the data requires a small laboratory and a large budget.

This demonstration not only proves the viability of this technology.  It points out that despite the ever increasing volumes of data that we create, use, and store, the ability to securely archive this data will not only be increasingly more important, but it will still be feasible and practical into the distant future.  Regardless of whether we are storing our data in our homes, offices, or on the cloud, there will always be a need for physical storage methods that ultimately may not seem that different from how we are doing it today, even if their storage density is hard to grasp today.

 

Mark “Loeb” Soldan
Director of Product Design Engineering
MSME Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

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