Scientists from Brown University are reported to have discovered how to store data on metabolic molecules which are pieces of matter even smaller than DNA.
Storage in artificial metabolomes
The results of the recent research announced on the Brown University website and published in the PLOS ONE journal describe how researchers have discovered a way to store/encode and retrieve kilobyte-scale image files from artificial metabolomes which are arrays of liquid mixtures containing sugars, amino acids and other types of small molecules. Some of these small molecules are smaller and have greater information density than DNA.
According to the researchers, although DNA is best for encoding larger data sets, the small molecule metabolite data method has low latency so data sets can be written and read quickly. The small molecule method is, however, still slower than traditional computers.
DNA storage research not new
Research into storing data in DNA is not new. For example, back in 2013, scientists in Cambridge spelt out a collection of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets in DNA.
Also, last September, UK scientists developed a technique to enable them to store computer files on DNA. Scientists from the European Bioinformatics Institute developed a method whereby the basis of digital data, which is made up of ones and zeros, is changed into their own code as Cs, Gs, and Ts.
This converted code was sent to a US laboratory which turned the letter code into physical DNA so it could act like an incredibly small hard drive. The laboratory used DNA synthesis machines to transform the code into physical material in a similar way to how an inkjet printer lays down ink on paper. The physical result was a tiny piece of dust with the vital digital data stored inside. An estimated 215 petabytes (215 million gigabytes) of data could be stored in a single gram of DNA.
The reasons for developing ways to store data in DNA and even smaller molecules are that we are generating vast quantities of data with no practical and cost-effective way to store it for the future. For example, it is estimated that there are now 3 zettabytes (3000 billion bytes) of digital data with more being generated all the time. Storage media such as hard disks are expensive and require a constant supply of expensive electricity and even the best ‘no-power’ archiving materials, e.g. magnetic tape, degrade within a decade.
The advantages of DNA and smaller molecules for storage are:
- Sensitive data stored in DNA and other small molecules won’t be vulnerable to hacking.
- Data stored in this way could survive in harsher climates and environments where traditional hardware can’t.
- DNA provides a highly effective, ultra-compact space-saving solution that doesn’t require large amounts of costly electricity.
- DNA can keep for hundreds of thousands of years if kept in a cool, dry place. Data stored in DNA won’t degrade over time and it can be decoded relatively easily.
- DNA won’t become obsolete and, unlike other high-density approaches, new technologies can write and read large amounts of DNA in one go.
What does this mean for your business?
The incredible science involved in this could give businesses a way to store and back up vast amounts of data in a very convenient and secure way (safe from hackers) with dramatically reduced space, equipment, and electricity costs, and with the assurance the data could be stored, without decay, for many thousands of years. Some tech commentators have estimated that commercial DNA storage devices may be on shelves in the next few years.
You could be forgiven for thinking, however, that DNA storage of data sounds (and probably will be) expensive, and it may be the case that most businesses will be sticking to cloud storage for quite some time yet.