Every photo you take,
every file you make,
every pixel you create,
every sound you fake,
every video you shake,
I’ll be storing you.
Hard drives, cloud drives, DVDs, and magnetic tape – all of these are used to store digital data but the amount of data being stored is growing rapidly and that storage space is running out. This conundrum has inspired a look at alternative materials such as DNA.
DNA is an attractive storage medium for many reasons. DNA is chemically stable, physically small, and each of the four bases can represent a different combination of 1’s and 0’s (A = 00, C = 01, G = 10, T =11). According to the companies that work on DNA storage, DNA can hold 100,000 times more information than current technologies. Thus, according to the DNA Data Storage Alliance, DNA meets the requirements for storage density and storage durability (1).
The idea of using DNA to store information makes sense. After all, biological systems use DNA to store genome information.
But I’ve always had a lot of questions.
- How would DNA storage work?
- How do you encode the information
- How do you decode the information?
- What if the DNA degrades?
How might DNA storage work? And how would the information be encoded?
First, we’d need to know what DNA sequence to make. The Binary to DNA translator system developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory could be helpful (2). The translator would take the 1’s and 0’s in a digital file and convert them to a set of DNA sequences.
Pieces of DNA with the desired sequence would be synthesized with one end attached to a chip. To decode the DNA, DNA polymerases would be used to copy the sequences and provide the readout. Assembly algorithms would be used to splice the sequences together into a longer string which would be translated back into 1’s and 0’s.
What do DNA storage companies do?
The companies working on developing the technologies for DNA storage include companies that specialize in synthesizing DNA like Twist Bioscience, Ansa Biotechnologies, and DNA Script, companies that specialize in DNA sequencing (Illumina), companies focused on high performance computing (Hyperion, Microsoft), companies that work on data storage and recording media (Fujifilm Recording Media, Seagate, Kioxia), and several companies that are committed to producing digital storage media with DNA (Biomemory, DNAli Data Technologies, Cache DNA, Catalog, Iridia, and Quantum).
Already, DNA has been used to store two songs from the Montreux Jazz Festival (2) and “The Wizard of Oz” (3).
Maybe someone will even use DNA to store a genome sequence. It could happen.
2. Oliver Peckham, April 2021. Los Alamos Develops Binary-to-DNA Translator, HPC Wire.
3. Oliver Peckham, July 2020. There's no Storage Like ATGC: Breakthough Helps to Store 'The Wizard of Oz' in DNA, HPC Wire.