Researchers perfect DNA information storage
Fri 8 Apr 2016
A new method of data storage, developed by a team of researchers from the University of Washington and Microsoft, involves encoding digital information using DNA molecules. This technique can store information millions of times more efficiently than current data centers. The team successfully encoded digital files to the nucleotides of synthetic DNA and were able to retrieve the information perfectly, with zero data loss.
In the successful experiment, researchers encoded digital data from four image files, as well as archival video authentication data, all of which were retrieved from the synthetic DNA and reconstructed without any issues. DNA molecules not only store information millions of times more compactly than existing storage technologies, they can also, in a dehydrated state, preserve information without the hardware degradation that occurs with say, a flash drive. While a flash drive or hard drive will degrade after a few years or decades, DNA can preserve information reliably over centuries.
“Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information,” said Luis Ceze, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. “It’s very compact and very durable. We are essentially repurposing it to store digital data – pictures, videos, documents – in a manageable way for hundreds of thousands of years.”
A 2014 study estimated that the digital universe would grow from 4.4 trillion gigabytes to 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020 – imagine six stacks of iPads reaching from the earth to the moon. With users generating so much information, storage will become more and more of an issue. The team believes that the DNA-based storage system they are developing could help to manage the issue of data storage.
The research team first developed a method to convert long strings of binary code to DNA sequencing blocks – adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Then, they encoded a locator address with the data file so that the information could be retrieved later. Using DNA sequencing, researchers can read the data and convert it back to a usable file. The encoding approach, while using techniques common in molecular biology and the biotechnology industry, also incorporates error correction schemes used in computer science which had not been applied to DNA previously.
Ceze expressed this multidisciplinary approach succinctly, saying, “This is an example where we’re borrowing something from nature – DNA – to store information. But we are using something we know from computers – how to correct memory errors – and applying that back to nature.”