As powerful as technology and computing power has become, it's important to remember that nature is often way ahead of us. This new piece of research builds on previous studies that have looked into harnessing the storage abilities of DNA to hold digital data.
Microsoft, Twist Bioscience, and the University of Washington have set the record for the most amount of information put onto strands of DNA, including encoding and decoding the music video “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Go. Along with this, they have also stored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in more than 100 languages, the top 100 books of Project Guttenberg and Crop Trust’s seed database on DNA strands. That’s a total of 200 megabytes of data.
Storing data on DNA is currently a costly and slow process. However, the techniques they’re developing could be the solution to the ever-increasing demand for data storage. With all biological life as a testament, DNA can pack huge amounts of information in a relatively small space. Twist Bioscience say that a single gram of DNA can store nearly one trillion gigabytes of digital data. Kept under the right conditions, it can also last for thousands of years without deterioration.
In a statement from Microsoft, the team said they used the OK Go video, which you can watch below, because "they’re very innovative and are bringing different things from different areas into their field and we feel we are doing something very similar.” It's an amazing choice of video, featuring a lengthy chain-reaction "Rube Goldberg machine," although they definitely missed out on a Billie Jean (Gene?) pun.
Luis Ceze, the UW’s Torode Family Career Development Professor of computer science and engineering, explained in a statement: “The world is producing data at an incredible rate, and storage technologies need to keep up. DNA is a remarkable storage molecule – it is millions of times denser than other storage media, it is incredibly durable (think millennia) and it never becomes obsolete. We humans, as DNA-based life forms, will always be interested in reading and writing DNA."
Here’s how it works:
As of now, digital information – from text files to images to videos – is coded into combinations of 1s and 0s. It’s a similar story in DNA, but there are four nucleotide bases that code the information instead – adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. The researchers had to “translate” the binary computer code into this four-way genetic code.
They then create their own synthetic DNA by using polymerase chain reactions to multiply the strands and codes they want to use. They can then sequence these chunks of code into the desired order.
To “read” the data on the strands, the DNA is re-suspended and read by a DNA sequencer, which determines the order of A, C, G, T bases. Once this is established, a computer algorithm translates this back into digital data of 1s and 0s.
But what does this whole process look like to the human eye? According to Karin Strauss, a Microsoft researcher on the project, basically just salt in a test tube.