Could DNA reinvent data storage?

Featured Image: With DNA storage, all of the information on the internet could fit inside of a shoebox.

Sunday, 14 April 2019, New York, NY – No matter what form of data storage you choose, there is always some limitation. Not just on the amount of data you can store, but also on how long that mode of storage can last. Paper decomposes, hard drives deteriorate, and even stones will eventually erode. But recently, novel technology has the potential to expand both of those capacities dramatically – much more than any currently existing form of data storage – and can revolutionise data storage in the process. That novel technology is one that we are already familiar with – DNA.

How DNA Works

To understand how DNA can revolutionise data storage, you need to understand DNA itself. Most people already know that DNA codes for genetic traits in all organisms, including humans. Everything from hair, eye, and skin colour, height, weight, and genetic risk for disease, are all determined by DNA.

Now, here’s why DNA has the potential to reinvent data storage. DNA is made of four nitrogen bases: Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine, also known as AGCT. Each of these bases can form groups of three known as codons, and each codon creates its own specific acid. For example, CTC is Leucine, TCT is Serine, CGC is Arginine, and UGG is Tryptophan. Three nitrogen bases per codon combined with four nitrogen bases in general creates a total of 64 possible codons. The idea behind DNA storage is that each of these 64 codons could be turned into a letter, number, or character, kind of like Morse Code.

The Normandy Message

In 1999, a group of genetic scientists based in New York City did just that and created an alphabet where each codon represented a specific letter, number, or character. They then encoded a 22-character long message into a string of DNA, and surrounded the string with genetic markers. They put the entire sequence onto a single period at the end of a typed letter, mailed the letter to themselves, and searched for the DNA strand. They found it, sequenced the DNA, and successfully decoded the message. The message read: “June 6 Invasion: Normandy”.

But this is obviously a very basic experiment, though. Instead of creating a Morse Code like system, one could translate binary code into DNA codons and create a more advanced form of data storage. British scientists in 2012 encoded all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and an excerpt of MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, a total of 739 KB of computer files converted into DNA strands. And in 2016, a collaboration between Microsoft and the University of Washington went even further and managed to encode 200 MB of data into DNA, containing the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a high definition OK GO music video. That’s a very strange combination, but nevertheless the Microsoft-UW collaboration represented the largest amount of data ever stored entirely on DNA.

DNA is also important because of its ability to store enormous amounts of information in very small amounts of space. In fact, it is theoretically possible to store approximately 100 million HD movies – about 400 million GB – on a pencil eraser. Yes. On a pencil eraser. And all of the information that exists on the internet can fit inside of a shoe box. And in terms of existentiality, magnetic tapes – the mode of data storage used by computers today- only last for a few decades before they deteriorate and the information stored on them is lost. Whereas the average half-life of DNA is 500 years, and if stored properly, DNA can last 200,000 years!

With such a long-lasting form of data storage with a seemingly infinite amount of room for information, DNA is, with no doubt, the future of data storage.

One thought on “Could DNA reinvent data storage?

  1. This is fascinating work and would have been viewed as ridiculous science fiction only one generation ago. That said, I think scientists need to work more energetically to learn how to put data into action. We are not doing very well in terms of applying the data we already store, especially for health care!


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