Imagine taking the entirety of the world’s digital information – about 1.8 zettabytes, according to Harvard bioengineer Sriram Kosuri – and storing it on materials weighing only 4 grams. It’s not only possible, but the technology has been around for billions of years: DNA.
Kosuri and geneticist George Church, both researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, have successfully encoded Church’s forthcoming book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology will Reinvent Nature on Ourselves into DNA. They may not sound like a big deal until you realize they have replicated that tome 70 billion times on a single gram of biological material . That amounts to 700 terabytes of data and 100 times the number of books ever printed.
Using life’s building blocks as a storage medium isn’t new, but according to ExtremeTech, Church and Kosuri managed to cram 1000 times more information into their double helices than had previously been achieved. Basically they used the four the nucleobases that define genetic code – adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T) – as binary markers. A and C become 0, and G and T become 1.
So why use DNA to store digital data? ExtremeTech sums it up best:
It’s incredibly dense (you can store one bit per base, and a base is only a few atoms large); it’s volumetric (beaker) rather than planar (hard disk); and it’s incredibly stable — where other bleeding-edge storage mediums need to be kept in sub-zero vacuums, DNA can survive for hundreds of thousands of years in a box in your garage.
It is only with recent advances in microfluidics and labs-on-a-chip that synthesizing and sequencing DNA has become an everyday task, though. While it took years for the original Human Genome Project to analyze a single human genome (some 3 billion DNA base pairs), modern lab equipment with microfluidic chips can do it in hours. Now this isn’t to say that Church and Kosuri’s DNA storage is fast — but it’s fast enough for very-long-term archival.