Could DNA Be Used To Store Our Data?

British Scientists have recently begun experiments to test whether DNA is a viable alternative to most modern ways of storing our data, given that data storage developers aren’t able to keep up with the demand for storage capacity.

It is estimated that roughly every 5 years the demand for data storage capacity increase 10 times the normal amount of required storage, with some digital computers now requiring 1 terabyte of capacity; a boost from 5 years ago when 500 gigabytes was enough to satisfy most people’s data needs.

When it comes to the ability of processing and storing data, not many people would consider DNA to be a viable solution to a global digital-age problem. But DNA is naturally as powerful, if not more so, in storing information; blueprints, information and repair are what our own DNA is capable of doing for our own body. It’s not much of a jump then to assume DNA could be used to store digital data, which is simply a difference of 0’s and 1’s as opposed to the genetical structure of DNA’s ACGT. The benefits of using DNA is also substantial to that of digital storage hard drives since DNA can last an extremely long time.

So how do we go about making DNA accessible for data storage?

In an article by The Conversation, Authors Luis Ceze and Karin Strauss, Associate Professors of the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering stated that:

“To store data in DNA, the concept is the same, but the process is different. DNA molecules are long sequences of smaller molecules, called nucleotides – adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine, usually designated as A, C, T and G. Rather than creating sequences of 0s and 1s, as in electronic media, DNA storage uses sequences of the nucleotides.”

“There are several ways to do this, but the general idea is to assign digital data patterns to DNA nucleotides. For instance, 00 could be equivalent to A, 01 to C, 10 to T and 11 to G.”

They also further identified a substantial issue, however, with using DNA as a storage device. While the amount of data storage required for digital computers is increasing, DNA is currently at an impasse. In order for DNA to be a viable solution to our global data, the data has to be split into shorter chunks due to the fact that at the moment, DNA can only hold 20 bytes per individual strands; structure, and density aside as well, the longer a piece of DNA is the more chemical structure needs to be implemented.

While this technology would certainly be obtainable in the near future, both authors have their own speculation behind the application, as for now the process of creating DNA-data storage is incredibly by-hand; Strauss even mentioning that:

“At present, DNA storage is experimental. Before it becomes commonplace, it needs to be completely automated, and the processes of both building DNA and reading it must be improved. They are both prone to error and relatively slow. For example, today’s DNA synthesis lets us write a few hundred bytes per second; a modern hard drive can write hundreds of millions of bytes per second.”

In the meantime, it looks as though while scientists worldwide tackle a serious and exciting new prospect of modern data technology, our old hard drives are going to have to make do.


Mattie Osborne

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