DNA: The Future of Data Storage?

By David Hong ’19

After 12 years of work, in 2012, a bioengineer and geneticist succeeded in storing a 5.24-megabyte text file into Deoxyribonucleic Acid, also known as DNA. Recently, on March 2nd of 2017, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, the first film ever produced, became the first movie to be stored in DNA. Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski, researchers at Columbia University and the New York Genome Center (NYGC), encoded this silent 50-second movie 100 times more effectively than the method used in 2012. This staggering scientific advancement in DNA encoding and decoding may be the answer to our rapidly growing demand for bigger storage capacity.

The process of DNA storage starts with creating a key, a referential data to encode the information into a binary code consisting of ones and zeros. Erlich and Zielinski implemented the algorithm used in streaming videos on cellphones to convert the data into four base nucleotides: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine (ACGT). To archive this DNA, the research team then synthesized the information. To read the stored data, the team performed DNA sequencing in reverse, a technology that has been widely used for DNA profiling for forensic identification and genetic testing. With DNA sequencing, the team used an algorithm to decode DNA nucleotides into a binary code, which is readable using the key created at the start.

The main challenge in the science of DNA storage is the high operating price for DNA synthesis. Fortunately, the increasing rate for global data outpaces the growth of hard drive capacity; we are producing more than we can store. The high demand for bigger data storage could increase research grants and efforts into DNA storage development, removing the cost barrier of DNA synthesis. With its exceptionally high capacity, DNA storage is also very reliable, stable and invulnerable to environmental changes. As another advantage of this storage technology, Erlich says that “DNA won’t degrade over time like cassette tapes and CDs, and it won’t become obsolete – if it does, we have bigger problems.”

With the development of DNA storage abilities, we will be able to perform better data governance of complex information. As we unravel this four-billion-year-old information archive, we need to allocate our attention to its applications and recognize the potential of DNA storage.

References:

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/337/6102/1628

https://phys.org/news/2017-03-short-movie-dna.html

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6328/950.full

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/425237/ibm-builds-biggest-data-drive-ever/

Harvard cracks DNA storage, crams 700 terabytes of data into a single gram

Big Data Comes With Big Problems

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/this-speck-of-dna-contains-a-movie-a-computer-virus-and-an-amazon-gift-card/518373/

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