Nature's Data Storage

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Nature's Data Storage


For many problems of the mind and spirit, it's often suggested that we look within ourselves.

Based on new learnings from a team of British researchers, the solution to storing the massive amounts of digital data generated on a daily basis may also be found within ourselves.

In our DNA, to be exact.

Researchers Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute, Hinxton, England said they stores all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets, a photo, a scientific paper, and a 26-second sound clip from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech on a barely visible bit of DNA in a test tube -- and were able to retrieve all of this data.

While the process of retrieving this data took two weeks and is very expensive using today's technology, the researchers said that technical advances will continue to drive both costs and retrieval time down.

When you think about it, genetic code is not all that different than binary codes -- one uses varying patterns of 1s and 0s, whille the other uses patterns of four different amino acids represented by the letters, A, C, T, and G. What the researchers did was first translate the 1s and 0s of the data they planned to store to the genetic sequences of A, C, T, G, including some redundancies and other measures to avoid the occasional misalignment that heppens in nature (that's where it gets more science and math-heavy than we neeed to dicuss, but for those interested you can read Birney's blog). They then sent the information to a lab to produce the strand of DNA. What the lab returned was a test tube with what looked like a speck of dust laying at its bottom.

To retrieve the information, they ran the DNA through a reader to get its genetic sequence, then translated it back to binary code, and everything was assembled intoi its original form.

While this is an over-simplified description of how it was done, what's amazing is just how much DNA has the potential to store. "DNA has a wonderful property: it can be stored stably without electricity, and needs no management beyond keeping it cold and dark," Birney wrote in his blog. "It is remarkably dense, even with the rather insane over-production of molecules (we calculated that we could have easily have gotten away with using a tenth of the DNA). Given all the design redundancy, we calculated that one gram of DNA would (easily) store one petabyte of information."

While we're still a bit away from DNA storage being a commercial viability, by the time our data has outgrown our capacity to store it using traditional means, perhaps it will be ready.

Why not? The airline industry studies birds for lessons on aerodynamics, the naval industry studies whales for sonar, why not study nature's storage for a means to archive all of our data?