Research is constantly being carried out to find methods of digital data storage that will have limitless capacities of holding data and one of the most recent techniques being researched on involves storing data in form of DNA molecules. For many years, DNA has been used by biological systems to store information but until recently, this technique had not been explored extensively to find out whether it could be used to store other kinds of data as well.
A team of researchers at the European Bio informatics Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory have come up with proof to show that DNA molecules could hold more data than previously imagined. Headed by Nick Goldman and Ewan Birley, this team has demonstrated the potential that DNA molecules possess for storing and transporting man made data. In the course of their research, these well learned fellows used DNA molecules to store and transport data from well chosen elements like Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, an audio excerpt from the Famous “I have a dream speech” by Martin Luther King, Watson and Cricks paper about the structure of DNA and lastly a colored portrait of the European Bioinformatics Institute.ž
These files (in common formats used by almost any desktop or laptop computer) were encoded byte after byte in form of DNA molecules and shipped from USA to Germany. The process of shipping did not involve any special packaging. Upon arrival in Germany, they were decoded back to their original formats without any loss of data. The total data encoded and transported in this case was less than a megabyte in total but this is much more than has previously been encoded in the form of synthesized DNA.
With this technique, vast quantities of data can now be encoded in microscopic volumes. This technique which was published in this week’s copy of the Scientific Journal Nature brings to within realization the dream of many archivists to be able to store data limitlessly. According to the authors, this technique could be developed further to create a storage capacity way above the combined total digital information currently being stored worldwide. They argue that the technique can convincingly store up to 1 zeta byte or 1015 megabytes of digital data at its peak.
DNA molecules are naturally made up of four chemicals which connect from one end to another like the characters of an alphabet forming long strings which look like a line of text. They are as well similar to the sequences of zeroes and ones that are used by computers to digitally represent information. The advantage of the molecules is that they can remain relatively stable for quite some time without a lot of care and attention thus making them perfect for storing data without any possibilities of distortion.
Compared to modern day methods of data storage and transfer, this technique has a lot of advantages and some of them include; this technique of using DNA molecules requires no power supply to function effectively. This in turn makes it easier to store and transport. This technique is also less prone to technological failure which is common in some electronic media.
The minuteness of the DNA is also another advantage that the technique possesses over other storage media. According to the authors of the technique, a small cup of DNA could hold up to 100 million hours of HD videos. This means that you could store as much data as you would have imagined in a small tea cup without any worry that the information will be distorted or damaged.
However, as earlier stated, research is still ongoing and do not expect DNA storage devices in your local supermarket soon. This is because of certain drawbacks in the process of developing DNA storage devices. For example synthesizing DNA in the required quantities costs around $12,400 per megabyte which makes it only cost effective for data to be stored for hundreds or thousands of years. The media also has to be periodically replaced and data copied thus increasing the expenses. The decoding process is also quite expensive costing $220 per megabyte.
Judging by current market trends, the costs are likely to go down in a period not less than a decade from now meaning that the technique will become feasible at least 10 years from today. That is when we expect to see DNA archives lasting 50 years.
However much there are drawbacks, the technique may be viable and attractive for long term un frequently used archives like historical records and science projects that create vast amounts of data. Despite the fact that the technique may not yet be in common use soon, it has opened doors for further research and we expect to see more developments in the near future.