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Scientists could use DNA to shrink a data centre into a sugar cube

Lucas Mearian | April 12, 2016
DNA storage has the potential to last thousands of years.

Microsoft and University of Washington (UW) researchers have demonstrated the ability to use synthetic DNA as a form of archival storage for data.

If the technology can be made robust enough for mainstream use, it would be possible to take a Walmart-sized supercenter filled with today's highest capacity data storage devices and shrink it to the size of a sugar cube, the researchers said.

"We think the time is ripe to consider DNA-based storage seriously and explore system designs and architectural implications," the researchers wrote in their paper.

The research team was able to successfully encode digital data from four image files into the nucleotide sequences of synthetic DNA snippets. More significantly, they were also able to reverse that process — retrieving the correct sequences from a larger pool of DNA and reconstructing the images without losing a single byte of information.

DNA data storage archive
Tara Brown Photography/University of Washington UW computer science and engineering research scientists mix DNA samples for storage. Each tube contains a digital file, which might be a picture of a cat or a Tchaikovsky symphony.

Another experiment demonstrated the ability to encode and retrieve data that authenticates archival video files from the UW's "Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal" project that contain 49 video interviews with judges, lawyers and other personnel from the Rwandan war crime tribunal.

"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," Luis Ceze, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering and co-author of the research paper, 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," he added.

Research into DNA data storage has progressed rapidly. In 1999, DNA-based storage involved encoding and recovering a 23-character message.

By 2013, scientists from U.K.-based EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute claimed they'd encoded an .mp3 of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in DNA.

The encoding method makes it possible to store at least 100 million hours of high-definition video in about a cup of DNA, the researchers said in a paper published in the journal Nature.

According to the U.K. researchers, data stored in strands of DNA can last for tens of thousands of years.

Reading DNA is fairly straightforward, but writing it has been a major hurdle. There are two challenges: First, using current methods, it is only possible to manufacture DNA in short strings. Secondly, both writing and reading DNA are prone to errors, particularly when the same DNA letter is repeated.

 

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