Technology 4 min read

Edgy Explains: What is DNA Data Storage?

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Short for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, DNA, is the carrier molecule of genetic code that basically makes us, us!

DNA carries tens of thousands of protein-coding genes – scientists still don’t know for sure how much exactly – which determine each and every one of our traits. Even our personality could be more genetic than environmental.

As nature’s oldest information-storage medium, DNA is inspiring scientists to try to adapt it into data storage systems that would address the world’s rising data crisis.

DNA data storage systems could be the alternative to traditional magnetic and optical storage media we didn’t know we’d be in need for.

DNA Data Storage and the Big Problem of Big Data

The world produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. So much that about 90% of all the existing data has been generated in the last two years alone.

By 2020, you and each internet user would generate about 1.7 megabytes of data per second, or about 418 zettabytes annually. Zettabyte amounts to one trillion gigabytes, so we need roughly 418 billion one-terabyte hard drives to store these massive amounts of data.

More mind-boggling stats illustrate the ever-growing problem of Big Data and how it increases the pressure on conventional storage systems.

People say they have their files stored on the cloud and don’t give it much thought. But the cloud is just data centers, basically big hard drives, and lots of them. Data centers consume vast amounts of energy and have a large carbon footprint.

Data centers in the U.S. consume billions of kilowatts of electricity, roughly the same amount as over 6 million American households, or about 2% of the U.S. total energy consumption!

This is where DNA data storage systems come in. DNA’s long sequences of nucleotides A, T, C, and G can be used to encode information.

DNA’s three significant advantages make it a perfect candidate in this regard: it lasts longer, stores more, and costs less.

DNA allows the genetic information to be preserved and passed on to the next generations, and one of DNA’s most remarkable characteristics is its longevity.

Under ideal conditions, DNA could theoretically still be readable after millions of years, which is not surprising considering there are longevity genes.

Then we have data density. You can store around 215 petabytes of data, or 215 million gigabytes, per one gram of DNA!

A few other things, however, can compete with that. For instance, metabolites were claimed to have a higher data density than DNA.

DNA’s four-letter alphabet can be used to store every bit of data humans have ever created in a single room, or “a container about the size and weight of a couple of pickup trucks.”

Read More: All of Humanity’s Data to be Stored in DNA

MIT’s Catalog and Other DNA Data Storage Projects

So DNA can store way more digital data than any other existing approach, and it takes a very long time to degrade. But at which cost?

Cost-effectiveness is the critical aspect of DNA data storage technology that scientists are working on.

DNA could be the future of data storage technology and several major tech companies, like Microsoft, MIT, Intel, and others are developing their own DNA data storage projects.

An MIT spinoff startup, Catalog“is building the world’s first DNA-based platform for massive digital data storage and computation.” 

Catalog’s team claims their technology enables storing digital data in DNA-based systems much faster and cheaper than current techniques. Catalog’s technology is like a printing press with movable typefaces compared to pen an paper.

To retrieve stored information, the DNA molecules are placed in a sequencing machine where a computer can read it back out.

Nate Roquet, Catalog’s co-founder, asks a legitimate question though:

“Ten, fifteen years down the road… what the implications are once all data is stored in DNA?”

Another exciting DNA data storage project is that of Microsoft and the University of Washington. Researchers designed a “fully automated system to store and retrieve data in manufactured DNA — a key step in moving the technology out of the research lab and into commercial data centers.”

As a proof-of-concept test of their system, the UW and Microsoft team encoded a single word “hello” around five bytes of data, and yet it took them 21 hours to write, store, and read the file.

The said end-to-end DNA storage device costs around $10,000. But by eliminating some costly sensors and actuators, it can be brought down to $3,000 – $4,000.

Read More: Metabolomes For Molecular Computers: Metabolites To Store Data

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