Hard Drives or DNA?

Hard drives made of DNA:

not only genes can be stored in DNA molecules
Not only genes can be stored as DNA. Credits: Ana Costa

Ready, set, go: DNA is now much closer to become the new platform for information storage. Scientists have attempted to develop the technique for a while, and a recent report (commented here ) has proven that it is possible to store data in DNA as if it was a hard drive, meaning than not only small pieces of information can be stored, but that the advances are compatible with numerous big files. More importantly, there is a serious potential for this to become the ultimate tool in data storage: it is very stable over time and is becoming cheaper every day.

To test their hypothesis, scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute(EBI) in Hinxton, UK, and at the Agilent Technologies in California, USA, had to decide what information to store in the DNA. They wanted to store files with different formats – pictures, texts, sounds - to prove the flexibility of the new platform. The choices were eclectic and included: a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Marthin Luther King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech, Watson and Crick’s 1953 original paper on the molecular structure of DNA, and a photo of the EBI, located south of Cambridge.

Using an algorithm, bytes were converted into the 4-letter code found in the DNA molecule. Long molecules of DNA encoding particular pieces of information were then synthesized, a procedure that has greatly developed in the recent years, overcoming the high costs and errors that characterized this technique in the past. The synthesized DNA was stored lyophilized and shipped across the Atlantic at ambient temperature in common packaging. In this way, the authors wanted to prove that this is a very practical system that does not require any special handling or storage conditions. Upon arrival, the DNA was “read” so that the information could be decoded. The sequencing machines work fast nowadays and it didn’t take long until scientists were able to recite Shakespeare in the lab.

Are these promising results? Yes. Can we use DNA instead of hardware in the future? Maybe not. DNA will probably never become your first choice of storage material because you would need access to synthesizing and sequencing machines and those can only be found in well-equipped labs, not in one’s living room. However, if your lab produces high amounts of data and you are considering storing it for a long time but accessing it scarcely (or never) in the future, DNA may well serve your purposes

Right now scientists are busy discussing if DNA is the ultimate apocalypse-proof storage material that can survive fire, storms, earthquakes and all kinds of disasters in a much better way than would hard-drives. Of one thing at least we can be sure of: DNA was here much before hardware was, so it may well last longer too!!