Digital information is accumulating at an astounding rate, straining our ability to store and archive it. It’s expected that human beings will engender around 16 trillion gigabytes of digital data by 2017, and most of the data will need to be archived: Think: legal, financial, medical records, and multimedia files as well. At present, data is stored on optical disks, tapes or hard drives in energy-hogging and warehouse-size data centers. These storage devices live for a few days to few decades. If we talk about space consumed by these devices, of course, it’s a lot. In the era of Internet of things & Artificial intelligence, we need storage devices that could live longer. There’s no doubt about it, the world’s biggest technology firms are rushing to build data centers all over the globe. For a good reason: the Internet of Things revolution is going to produce ungodly amounts of data from sensors on our bodies and in our cars, homes, and offices.
According to Matt Starr, the chief technology officer of Spectra Logic, a tape cartridge is capable of storing data for about 30 years under certain conditions. But a more practical limit is 10 to 15 years, he says. It’s not that the data will disappear from the tape. Rather, the bigger problem is familiar to anybody who has come across an old eight-track tape or floppy disk that he no longer has a machine to play it. Starr also said that technology keeps moving, and data can’t be retrieved if the medium to read it is not available.
What is DNA-based storage?
Forget about the age old standard storage devices like Tape, or Magnetic Media or Semiconductor storage. They’re just spinning disks that make a lot of noise. These storage devices have a limited life span. DNA is so flexible that it can be used to create everything from an amoeba to a human, a dinosaur to a dandelion, and so small that the strands required to create all these life forms can be fitted into a single cell, a few micrometers large. DNA lasts for centuries if kept cold and dry. It could, in theory, pack billions of gigabytes of data into the volume of a sugar crystal.
How does it work?
Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G) and Thymine (T) are the four building-block molecules present in DNA. Using a coding system—at its simplest, say A represents bits ‘00,’ C represents ‘01’ and so on—scientists can take the strings of 0s and 1s that form digital data files and design a DNA strand that maps an image or video. Synthesizing the designer DNA strand is the data-writing part. Scientists can then read the data by sequencing the strands.
Where has the world reached?
In April 2016, Microsoft Research ordered 10 million strings from Twist Bioscience, a DNA synthesis start-up company in San Francisco, California. How did Microsoft do it? Microsoft first translated the 1s and 0s into a digital DNA sequence of letters. The sequence was then given to Twist for duplicating it with synthetic DNA. After Twist copied the data, it gave the organic material to Microsoft for testing. Microsoft and researchers from the University of Washington found that all the data – including about 200 megabytes of digital documents, a high-resolution music video and artwork from the band OK Go! – was unimpaired and retrievable.
Reinhard Heckel, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked on how to store data in DNA, calls it “impressive.” But he says that the largest obstacle to making DNA data storage useful is the cost because making custom DNA molecules is expensive. “For people to really pick it up, you need to store something cheaper than on tape, and that’s going to be hard,” says Heckel.
Harvard University geneticist George Church jump-started the field in 2012 by encoding 70 billion copies of a book—one million gigabytes—in a cubic millimeter of DNA. Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute, after a year, showed that only 739 kilobytes of data, stored in DNA, could be read without any error.
Memory maker Micron is exploring DNA as a post-silicon technology. The company is funding work by Harvard’s Church and researchers at Boise State University to explore an error-free DNA storage system. “The rising cost of data storage will drive alternate solutions, and DNA storage is one of the more promising solutions,” says Gurtej Sandhu, the director of Advanced Technology Development at Micron.
Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a unique computer that uses DNA for making calculations. The research team was led by Professor Ross D.King.
A nature magazine’s recently published article reads out that if an information could be packaged as densely as it is in the genes of the bacterium Escherichia coli, then the world’s storage needs could be met by about a kilogram of DNA (Refer to below mosaic by Nature).
Future of Storage Devices
If we talk about the market potential of storage devices, then numbers can cross our expectations. In a recent forecast by market research company IndustryARC, next Generation Data Storage Technology Market is Expected to Reach $23.11 Billion by 2025.
About 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is generated every day. While it’s easy to store data in digital format, it’s complex to archive data as it requires a continuous maintenance and transferring between storage media. Ideally, DNA provides an alternative to conventional semiconductor for a secure and long-term data storage. Think about the amount of data in a big data center that is compressed into a few sugar cubes or about all the publicly accessible data on the Internet that slipped into a shoebox. This is what the DNA storage promises.