age: “It’s a fast-moving space full of
uncertainty, but there is a great deal of
promise in the technology.”
Although the idea of using DNA to store
data extends back to the mid-1960s, it
wasn’t until 2012 that the concept began to take shape in any tangible way.
Then, Church and a team at Harvard
University figured out how to convert
digital 1s and 0s into long strings on
four different nucleotides, also referred to as bases, comprised of As, Gs,
Cs, and Ts (for adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine). They ultimately
encoded 70 billion copies of a 53,400-
word book, as well as JPG images and
multiple copies of all the data to test
the accuracy and capacity of the stor-
ONE OF THE remarkable iro- nies of digital technology is that every step forward creates new challenges for storingandmanagingdata.
In the analog world, a piece of paper or
a photograph never becomes obsolete,
but it deteriorates and eventually disintegrates. In the digital world, bits and
bytes theoretically last forever, but the
underlying media—floppy disks, tapes,
and drive formats, as well as the codecs
used to play audio and video files—
become obsolete, usually within a few
decades. Once the machine or media is
outdated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to access, retrieve, or view the file.
“Digital obsolescence is a very real
problem,” observes Yaniv Erlich, assis-
tant professor of computer science at
Columbia University and a core mem-
ber of the New York Genome Center.
“There is a constant need to migrate
to new technologies that don’t always
support the old technologies.”
The challenges don’t stop there.
Current storage technologies—even
state-of-the-art flash drives—require
significant space and devour incred-
ible amounts of energy to operate. Ul-
timately, there’s a need to “find a bet-
ter way to store data” while addressing
these and other issues, Erlich says.
As a result, researchers are looking
for more efficient ways to store data
from books, movies, and myriad other
digital file formats. One of the most
promising emerging candidates: DNA
storage. The technology uses synthetically produced DNA and a “printing”
or electrochemical assay process to
capture data in strings of synthetically
produced genetic code.
Unlike existing media and even
other emerging technologies such as
holographic and three-dimension-
al (3D) storage, DNA can withstand
huge variations in temperature, along
with some variation in moisture. This
makes it theoretically possible for the
data to last tens of thousands of years,
and even to withstand a global disaster.
The scale of the technology also in-
troduces remarkable possibilities. At
present, a gram of DNA holds about
730 million megabytes of data. “You
could potentially fit a datacenter in
DNA material the size of a sugar cube,”
states Georg Seelig, an associate pro-
fessor in the department of electrical
engineering at the University of Wash-
ington. Already, Microsoft Research
and Technicolor are eyeing DNA stor-
age, while researchers are inching clos-
er to developing a commercially viable
storage technology based on DNA.
Observes George Church, professor
of genetics at Harvard Medical School
and a pioneer in the field of DNA stor-
Cracking the Code
on DNA Storage
Researchers are tapping DNA to create a new and different type
of storage media. The technology could prove revolutionary.
Technology | DOI: 10.1145/3088493 Samuel Greengard