When it comes to storing vast quantities of data, nothing does so better than DNA. Researchers have found that a single gram of DNA could hold up to 455 exabytes of data. To put that in perspective, one exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes. That means almost all of the world’s data could fit inside a spoonful of DNA.
As such, it’s no wonder that researchers are working hard to find ways to store non-biologic data inside DNA.
A team of scientists from Columbia University recently made a major breakthrough in the space. The researchers wrote data into the DNA of a living organism for the first time ever, according to Science.
While humanity is still decades away from creating massive DNA hard drives, this is a step in the right direction.
In a sense, the genetic code of life isn’t so different from the code that runs computers. Rather than ones and zeroes, DNA is made up of combinations of four base pairs—adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine.
This allows researchers to convert digital data (ones and zeros) into biological base pairs. Until now, scientists have only been able to store data in DNA by synthesizing it in the lab. While this approach is technically plausible, it isn’t realistic for commercial use. That’s true for many reasons.
For one, it costs up to $3,500 to synthesize just one megabit of data. Moreover, raw DNA can degrade over time when it is stored in a lab—putting the data at risk of being corrupted and lost.
To solve this problem, researchers turned to the DNA of living organisms, in this case, E. coli bacteria. The team recently used the popular gene-editing tool CRISPR to electrically encode data into the cells.
In true computer nerd fashion, the researchers encoded the phrase “Hello world!” into the bacteria’s DNA. This equates to 72 bits of data. In other words, it is a small achievement in terms of data storage, but a major scientific breakthrough at the same time. It sets the stage for future advancements in the space and proves that storing data inside living DNA is possible.
While this technology is promising, there is a lot of work to do before it can go mainstream. In a paper published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, the team writes, “This work establishes a direct digital-to-biological data storage framework and advances our capacity for information exchange between silicon- and carbon-based entities.”
Meanwhile, lead Columbia researcher Harris Wang told Science, “We’re not going to compete with the current memory storage systems.”
To achieve that goal, researchers will need to find a way to protect the DNA from degrading or mutating as the bacterial cells replicate. Obviously, this is a top priority to address before the technology can be used commercially.
Nonetheless, it seems that massive DNA data backups will be a real thing at some point in the future. Given the rapidly expanding nature of the internet and technology, that’s a good thing.