A Single Drop Of Synthetic DNA Can Store All Of The Data In The World

600 basic smartphones' worth of data can fit onto that pink DNA smear. Tara Brown Photography/University of Washington

Technology for storing data has come a long way in the last 60 years. Back in 1956, IBM showcased the world’s first hard drive, which had a storage capacity of five megabytes – roughly one MP3 music file. Nowadays, we have the capability of recording all of human history on one single data chip that will outlast the extinguishing of the Sun.

But as researchers from the University of Washington (UW) have demonstrated, there are more unorthodox ways to store data than using silicon-based chips. Demonstrated in a study presented at the ACM International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems, they’ve managed to store 600 basic smartphones' worth of data on a smear of DNA – a storage system as small as their conference name is long.

“Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works – it’s very, very compact and very durable,” co-author Luis Ceze, the UW associate professor of computer science and engineering, said in a statement. “We’re essentially repurposing it to store digital data – pictures, videos, documents – in a manageable way for hundreds or thousands of years.”

Although it may seem strange to use DNA to store data, it already does just that when you think about it. DNA is the genetic instruction manual for all life on Earth. The researchers took advantage of this, realizing that they could convert DNA building blocks known as nucleotides (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) into digital bits of ones and zeros.

As the storage abilities of silicon transistors begin to tail off, the storage capacities of DNA, measured in nucleotides per person per day, keep increasing, making it an excellent data reservoir ripe for exploitation. Bornholt et al./University of Washington

The team then manufactured their own synthetic DNA, each strand containing variations of nucleotides that encoded for specific pieces of data. Distinctive markers were placed on certain nucleotides in order to make them more identifiable to the device reading them. By doing this, they were able to use DNA to encode digital data of any kind; retrofitting a computer system to retrieve this data followed soon afterwards.

They demonstrated their new storage technique by encoding four image files onto their synthetic DNA before retrieving and decoding it, all without losing a single bit of information. They also managed to do the same for audio files.

Remarkably, just one tiny smear of synthetic DNA can store 10,000 gigabytes' worth of movies, images, emails and text, which would last intact for at least 500 years. This makes this resilient storage system millions of times more compact than the most cutting-edge contemporary methods.

This method is currently in the proof-of-concept stage, so don’t expect it to be available anytime soon. However, this technique has massive space-saving potential. As the study points out, the digital universe – all digital data worldwide – is expected to reach 16 zettabytes by next year. Using the researcher’s metric, that’s about a trillion basic smartphones’ worth.

This new synthetic DNA storage system, at its theoretical limit, can store 1 billion gigabytes per cubic millimeter. This means that 16,000 cubic millimeters (roughly one cubic inch) could store all of the world’s data by 2017.

Everything we’ve ever known on a single blob of synthetic DNA. Now that’s pretty impressive.

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