Over the decades, storage technology has evolved and improved. It went from CDs and floppy disks to hard drives and SSDs. But we still have a problem: the amount of storage available and produced cannot keep up with the data we keep producing.
So would storing DNA solve the problem? Can data be stored in DNA?
What is DNA Data Storage?
DNA data storage is the process of using DNA molecules as a storage medium. Unlike the optical and magnetic forms of current storage technologies, DNA data will not be stored in binary digits (ie 1s and 0s). Instead, they would be encoded in DNA nucleotide bases (A, C, G, T) and stored. These strands are then converted to binary digits if necessary.
Currently, more than 11 trillion gigabytes of data exist, with at least another 2.5 million gigabytes being added every day. The data storage media available in the world cannot keep up with this massive increase. DNA storage is a solution to this storage problem.
How does DNA data storage work?
DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. It is a complex organic molecule that carries the genetic information of a living being. It is found in all humans and stores information such as skin color, eye color, height, and other physical and biological traits.
A DNA spiral has multiple, alternating pairs of four unique bases. They are adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). These bases are attached to the DNA coil in pairs, called base pairs. The two base pairs are adenine-thymine and guanine-cytosine.
Data is stored in binary digits (1 and 0) in traditional computing. In DNA data storage, the four nucleotide bases (A, C, G, T) store and encode data. Information is stored in permutations of three nucleotide bases, called codons.
DNA storage involves three processes: encoding data, synthesizing and storing it, and decoding it. Binary codes containing information are translated into DNA codes or codons using an algorithm. They are then placed in a container in a cool, regulated environment. DNA carrying information can be frozen in solution, stored as droplets, or stored on silicon chips.
Scientists are working to make reading DNA storage faster and cheaper. From now on, data stored in DNA has to be taken to the lab to be decoded into error-free binary information, and it takes a long time.
As such, it may take some time for DNA data storage devices to become cheap, readily available devices for the public to use.
More and more research is being done on DNA storage technology, and it will not yet easily overthrow existing storage methods. But in a few years, as new research and technological breakthroughs are made, the data will be stored in DNA, solving the problems of space, security and degradation.
What is the storage capacity of DNA data storage?
DNA data storage is the preferred solution to the storage shortage problem because it can store large amounts of data in very little space. One gram of DNA can store 215 petabytes of data. A petabyte is 1024 terabytes. Thus, one gram of DNA can store approximately 220,160 terabytes.
Compare that with current technology: a terabyte hard drive weighs about 400 grams. So, to store the equivalent amount of data that one gram of DNA holds, you need over 88 million grams of hard drives.
With this information, the researchers claim that all of the data in the world today can fit in a shoebox using DNA data storage.
What are the benefits of storing DNA data?
Using DNA storage as a storage medium has many advantages over digital storage. It offers high data storage capacity, significantly longer lifespan than other forms of storage, compactness, low susceptibility to technical and electrical failures, and replicability.
The main advantage of DNA storage over other storage media is storage density. Even if you store your data remotely on cloud or NAS, it is still stored in big servers and data centers. These data centers are as big as football stadiums and cost billions of dollars to build and maintain. It is not the same with the storage of DNA data.
DNA data storage allows you to store massive amounts of data in a very compact space. Hence the reduction of space problems, maintenance expenses and shortage of storage equipment.
The digital storage equipment available today is far from durable. They are all prone to rotting and degradation. Digital decay is the gradual breakdown of data stored on a computer, affecting millions of people every year.
DNA has a half-life of 500 years. When stored in an optimal and regulated environment, data stored in DNA can be available for hundreds of years.
Due to data degradation, data from data centers must be copied and transferred to other hardware after periods of time to preserve stored information. This process is often tedious.
Data stored in DNA can easily be replicated. One method scientists have tested involves inserting the DNA containing stored information into a bacterium. This bacterium reproduces—all alone—another generation of bacteria that have the same information stored in the first DNA without any errors or losses.
Is DNA data storage the future of storage?
Quite frankly, yes. DNA data storage certainly ticks all the solution boxes for today’s storage problems. It is already used today by companies that want to maintain large archives of information that does not need to be consulted regularly.
Unfortunately, it will be some time before DNA storage becomes a mainstream and affordable storage option available to the public. Meanwhile, we have to carefully choose the best storage format for long-term data storage.
Hard drives, SSDs, USB keys: how long will your storage media last?
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