Think back to your 9th grade Biology class, one of the first terms you likely learned was “DNA.” For good measure because deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the code that underlies all life on earth. Every living cell stores a chain of DNA within it. This DNA encodes information that helps cells produce proteins, grow and repair themselves. But scientists have recently recognized that DNA has an unexpected but potentially revolutionary application – digital data storage.
In theory, one gram of DNA can store up to 1 billion terabytes of information (also known as a Zettabyte). This is an inconceivably large amount of data in such a small unit of storage. But the advantages of storing data in DNA do not end with its efficiency. Indeed, the most exciting benefit of storing data in DNA is that DNA has been known to last for thousands of years. The oldest DNA ever sequenced came from the remains of a horse that lived 700,000 years ago. Preliminary research suggests that DNA could store digital data for as long as 2 million years if stored at around zero fahrenheit. By lasting so long DNA helps solve the most glaring weakness at the heart of our current data storage systems: that they only store data safely for a few decades before breaking down.
DNA data storage faces two significant challenges – it’s slow and expensive. Encoding data in DNA requires the physical manipulation of molecules which takes more time than computer queries. Similarly, the current crop of technology and established techniques are currently very expensive. Encoding something equivalent to Wikipedia would cost billions of dollars for example. In contrast, storing Wikipedia through the traditional data center route would run into the millions as opposed to billions of dollars.
Nonetheless, like with many nascent technologies the development curve for DNA data storage has been rapid and is accelerating. At one point, it cost $100 million to sequence just your genome. Today, that can be done for under $1,000. The rapid pace of these improvements blows the pace of improvement seen in Moore’s Law – which describes how the processing power of computers doubles every 18 months – out of the water.
The excitement over DNA data storage is palpable and growing. Microsoft for example, recently bought 10 million strands of DNA from a bioscience startup as part of its research into DNA data storage. Universities from Harvard to the University of Washington are engaged in cutting-edge research to push the boundaries of DNA’s capacity to store data. The emerging technology of DNA data storage could define the technology of the 21st century. While it still faces significant challenges, the opportunities it presents are huge and ripe for the taking.
Learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of sequencing your genome here.