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Scientists and researchers love finding new and interesting ways to store data, especially as the traditional spinning disk and even flash drive technologies are starting to run into the laws of physics. The newest one? DNA data storage.
Actually, the notion started out as a joke, writes Andy Extance in Nature. In 2011, biological information scientists were trying to figure out how they could afford to store the amount of genome sequences they had, and were so frustrated by the expense and limitations of conventional computing technology that they started kidding about sci-fi alternatives like using DNA. “Then the laughter stopped,” he writes. “It was a lightbulb moment.”
Scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute and at Harvard University each demonstrated a proof-of-concept of the idea in 2013, of just 0.74 megabytes. What’s different now is that Microsoft, which has been taking the lead in DNA storage research, was able to save 200 megabytes in DNA, or more than a 270 times improvement over 2013.
In fact, at one point, you could even buy a DNA storage device on Amazon, which stored 512 KB—enough for a small photograph or a document, according to the product description.
The downside? The cost, writes Tobi Ogunnaike in SingularityHub. “The current cost of DNA data storage is not attractive,” he writes. “Storing digital data in DNA involves both reading and writing DNA. While the price of reading DNA (DNA sequencing) has fallen sharply, the price of writing DNA (DNA synthesis) currently remains prohibitively high for data storage.”
The Microsoft experiment might have cost on the order of $150 million, writes Andrew Rosenblum in MIT Technology Review. “Microsoft won’t disclose details of what it spent to make its 200-megabyte DNA data store, which required about 1.5 billion bases,” he writes. “But Twist Bioscience, which synthesized the DNA, typically charges 10 cents for each base. Commercially available synthesis can cost as little as .04 cents per base. Reading out a million bases costs roughly a penny.” On the other hand, costs are dropping rapidly, he adds. “It would have cost about $10 million to sequence a human genome in 2007 but close to only $1,000 in 2015.”
Another downside? The speed, Extance writes. “DNA storage would be pathetically slow compared with the microsecond timescales for reading or writing bits in a silicon memory chip,” he writes. “It would take hours to encode data by synthesizing DNA strings with a specific pattern of bases, and still more hours to recover that information using a sequencing machine.”
But DNA storage offers one big advantage: Its density, or the amount of data it could store in a small space, Extance adds. “By 2040, if everything were stored for instant access in, say, the flash memory chips used in memory sticks, the archive would consume 10–100 times the expected supply of microchip-grade silicon,” he warns. Similarly, a data center holding an exabyte (one billion gigabytes) on tape drives would require $1 billion over 10 years to build and maintain, as well as hundreds of megawatts of power, he writes. “If information could be packaged as densely as it is in the genes of the bacterium Escherichia coli, the world’s storage needs could be met by about a kilogram of DNA.”
For example, the 200-megabyte Microsoft example occupied a spot in a test tube much smaller than the tip of a pencil, the company writes, which performed the experiment with the University of Washington.
DNA storage could also last longer and be more stable than existing data storage methods, writes John Markoff in the New York Times. “Magnetic disks, tape and even optical storage systems safely store information at most for only a handful of decades,” he writes. “The recent advances suggest there may be a new way to store the exploding amount of computer data for centuries rather than decades.” Keep in mind that readable DNA has been found in fossils thousands of years old.
Of course, DNA storage isn’t a panacea. There are a number of open questions about a new kind of storage system, Ogunnaike writes, such as what sort of security and user interface it will have. “Will we all have DNA sequencers, DNA synthesizers, and algorithms that translate digital data into biological data in our phones, our homes, or our local community biohacker spaces? Or will these capacities be restricted to companies?” he writes. “In either scenario, how easily we can interact with DNA data storage technology might affect how quickly we adopt this technology.”
Other complications include error correction, retrieving just portions of the data, and avoiding the sort of protein sequences that causes DNA strings to fold up, Extance writes.
And what if something you save accidentally creates life? Hmm. It could be the next Jurassic Park movie.