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Scientists make progress in using DNA to store data

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-12-14 09:45

A DNA double helix is seen in an undated artist's illustration released by the National Human Genome Research Institute to Reuters on May 15, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

Scientists say they have made progress with using DNA to store data. Storing digital information on magnetic hard drives is far from perfect, takes up lots of space, and only lasts a few years before it degrades in quality.

Researchers are now experimenting with storing information in DNA, which is our natural way of keeping information safe and passing it on.

It is claimed that storing data, such as videos, photos and documents, in DNA molecules will not only save space and be more efficient, but also preserve it for thousands of years. It is a format that will never go obsolete, so long as humans can read it.

Some scientists forecast improvement in this method by a factor of 100 in the next few years, as technology accelerates. The technique works by growing unique strands of DNA made out of four blocks-adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine.

This technique is so efficient in the natural world that the complete instructions to create something as complex as a human being can all be contained in just one microscopic cell. The same four base units are used by scientists to encode information in binary code made up of ones and zeroes, which is the language used in traditional computing.

Over 215 million gigabytes can be stored in a single gram of DNA, meaning that the complete records of every single thing produced by humanity could be stored onto something the size of a vehicle.

As ideal as it sounds, hurdles remain before this powerful technology becomes a mainstream reality. It currently costs around $7,000 to synthesize just 2 megabytes of data, barely the size of an image taken by a smartphone.

It would cost another $2,000 to open the data using equipment capable of reading DNA. This cost, of course, like many other new innovations, is likely to come down over time, but the current efficiency of reading such data is also still relatively slow. The fact that DNA is such a universally understood method of coding information in our natural world, however, has meant that undeterred boutique high-end customers have been known to use it for archival purposes, or time capsules.

Progress is being made. Microsoft has recently announced breakthroughs in storage and data writing techniques. Chinese researchers from Southeast University in Jiangsu province have also made headway, by approaching the challenge of DNA data storage differently to the West.

This technique is so efficient in the natural world that the complete instructions to create something as complex as a human being can all be contained in just one microscopic cell. This improvement in efficiency also simplifies the process and downsizes the tools needed to read the data. The ultimate holy grail of research is to be able to produce a solid state DNA storage device, similar to conventional silicon hard drives used now.

Such devices could not come soon enough. As a civilization we have created more data in the past two years than in the entirety of human history. Our ability to produce torrents of information may very soon supersede our ability to store it reliably. Knowledge that keeps modern societies functional, along with cultural and historical accuracy, must be protected.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily.

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