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Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute have proved that DNA can be used as a way of storing and archiving large amounts of digital data, by encoding a scholarly paper, a photo, Shakespeare’s sonnets and a video recording of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.
The information was stored using DNA, then read back using a DNA-reading machine with 100% accuracy, proving that DNA can be used as a reliable form of storing huge volumes of data.
Based at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School led a three-strong team, managing to store a 5.27MB collection of data. This is more than 600 times bigger than the largest dataset previously encoded, demonstrating that the technology to store data in DNA, while still slow, is becoming more practical.
This new storage method requires synthesising DNA from the encoded information. To do this, California-based company Agilent Technologies used the encoded data to synthesise thousands of pieces of DNA, with the result looking like tiny pieces of dust. This sample was then returned to the EMBL-EBI where researchers were able to sequence the DNA and decode the files without errors.
Using DNA to store large quantities of data offers superior benefits to current technologies such as hard-drives, which need electricity to run and come at a price, whilst other storage devices can deteriorate with time. DNA however, can last up to 10,000 years and requires no electricity. The storage quantity of DNA is unsurpassable too, with scientists estimating that just a cup of DNA, which has evolved over 3bn years to hold genetic information, could store 100m hours of high-definition video.
The scientists have recognised in the past that this form of data-storage is ‘breathtakingly expensive’, but researchers claim that the cost of DNA coding is dropping so drastically that within five to ten years it could be cheaper to store information using this method, than current, more-conventional devices.
Nick Goldman of EMBL-EBI explains the discovery:"We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from wooly mammoth bones, which date back tens of thousands of years, and make sense of it. It’s also incredibly small, dense and does not need any power for storage, so shipping and keeping it is easy.
“Reading DNA is fairly straightforward, but writing it has until now been a major hurdle to making DNA storage a reality.”
Last August, scientists used DNA to encode the contents of a book, 11 images and a computer program, but Dr. Nick Goldman said EBI’s system was the first to correct translation errors between the digital and DNA codes, and can also be scaled up for real archival storage.