DNA-Based Information Storage System: Need of 21st Century

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Digital information is accumulating at an astounding rate, straining our ability to store and archive it. It’s expected that human beings will generate 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 a 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 on. 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.

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.

Harvinder Singh

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