Rise of DNA Storage

Now, I don’t mean this in a creepy, conspiratory way like in the Matrix movies, where we are all living in a computer simulation controlled by an evil AI system.

We are definitely living in a real, physical world, but even in this world, every living thing, including ourselves, is the product of an algorithm.

The algorithm I am referring to is your DNA, which is actually an extremely complex set of instructions that describe how to make you, like an algorithm or a recipe. Every single aspect of your being – your height, your physique, your complexion, your hair and eye colour, your internals, your cell structure, your brain – is determined by your DNA. When the foetus starts developing in the womb, this DNA pattern is “decoded” to determine exactly how the child is going to be physically formed. Over the next nine months, the encoded DNA guides the formation.

This process is very similar to a computer following a set of instructions to complete a task, an algorithm.

Except that the DNA algorithm is far more complex than anything we can imagine, which is why it took nearly 70 years just to decode. Besides this obvious miracle inside the DNA of living things, scientists discovered something else – that DNA is a technological marvel, far more advanced than anything we are capable of making, even in this technologically-advanced age.

Consider, for example, the storage capacity of DNA. Inside of a tiny molecule, deep inside a microscopic cell in your body, your DNA stores all the possible data there is about you. This is a lot of data; according to some scientists, it amounts to nearly a gigabyte of data. When we compare this to the physical size of a 1G hard disk, we start to understand the storage capacity of DNA.

Based on this, scientists estimate that one gram of DNA is able to store 455 exabytes of data. One exabyte is equal to 1 billion gigabytes.

To put this into context, in 455 exabytes of storage, we can comfortably store all the data ever produced by human beings in history. This also includes all the data on the internet.

The other great thing about DNA is that it is extremely durable.

Whereas most modern storage media last a maximum of 30 years, DNA can survive for tens of thousands of years. These amazing qualities of DNA as a storage medium have prompted scientists to explore its potential as a long-term storage for all our vital data. In a previous article I wrote about the danger we currently face, of our entire knowledge base being wiped out because of the transient nature of our storage media.

If we do not find viable solutions, there is a chance future generations will know little or nothing about us. The good news is, scientists have discovered a way to store data on DNA, and are working to improve the technology. Dr Robert Grass and his team of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have managed to write the contents of entire books on to DNA strands.

They have also tested their DNA-stored books for longevity, and found that the content will easily survive for 2 000 years if stored at a temperature of 10ºC, and 2 million years if stored at 18ºC. Either way, DNA storage is far more durable than any other storage media known to man. The trouble with DNA storage is that it is currently extremely expensive. To write a single typed page of data on to DNA costs in the region of R60000. At that price, preserving an entire book will cost more than R18 million. Obviously, this makes DNA storage very restrictive at the moment, but as with all technology, the price will eventually drop.

When that happens, perhaps a time will come when we all walk around with tiny DNA chips embedded into our fingertips that will provide all the data storage we will ever need.

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