The Thumb Drive Of The Future Is Made Of DNA

Researchers just stored hundreds of megabytes of data on a few strands of the building blocks of life

Image courtesy of University of Washington

In the geekiest way possible, something very cool just happened at the University of Washington. A team of researchers put 200 MB of data into synthetic DNA strands roughly the size of a Number 2 pencil tip.

Yes, there are a myriad of storage devices that can accommodate 200 MB of data. You can go buy a USB drive online for just a few dollars. But that’s a whole dongle in your pocket. This is a chunk of DNA that’s barely visible at the bottom of a test tube! And while this isn’t the first time the building blocks of organic life have been used for data storage, the previous record for capacity was just 22 MB, so this is a dramatic jump.

And if you’re inclined to write this off as science fiction, just pump your brakes. Data storage is a persistent and needling problem in the modern age. How many times have you asked, “How can most effectively I protect my photos and pictures and stuff?” and gotten the answer “Just back up constantly and pray.”

And anyone who gives you that answer isn’t just being flippant, either. Physical media is flawed. Plain and simple. Compact discs and DVDs really aren’t meant to last more than five to 10 years, and the same goes for hard drives. Optical media is sensitive and susceptible to damage, and those discs you hear whirring inside your computer eventually wear out. So your best bet has so far been redundancy (backup in the cloud, on external hard drives, on another server in the cloud) and repetition (cover the old backup with a new backup!). But DNA might be a way to solve that problem for the very long term, and if you think about it for just a minute, the whole idea makes a lot of sense. After all, DNA has been holding and transferring genetic information since the very first single-celled organism came into existence.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We see DNA as potentially the ultimate backup media — super durable, incredibly dense and never becomes obsolete.[/quote]

In an email interview with Luiz Ceze, the lead researcher on the project and an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, he explains that when preserved properly, the vessel that holds genetic information for all living things can be the ultimate storage system. “DNA in the right conditions (dry, dark and not too hot) can last thousands of years,” says Ceze. “Some results a few years ago sequenced DNA from 700,000 year-old bones.” In other words, it’s “way more durable than Flash and [Hard Disk Drives].”

So what does this mean for us, the consumer? Well as you might have guessed, the process of translating the standard 1s and 0s of our digital data into the Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine (ACGT) of genetic data is of course not something you can just do at home. And even the Washington researchers had to ship out their converted data to a third party, a company called Twist Bioscience, to have it mapped onto synthetic DNA, which was then sent back to the university as “a test tube full of dry DNA data.”

And once you’ve stored something—in this case 100 books, the seed database of Crop Trust, and, yes, an HD version of the music video for OK Go’s 2010 song “This Too Shall Pass”—you have to get it back out again, and make it readable for whatever device will receive the information. That involves a lot more science, including re-sequencing and a technique called “polymerase chain reaction.” Suffice to say: Your garage workbench is not equipped to take this on in 2016.

But massive server farms could be able to handle technology like this within a decade. The process is still in its infancy, but according to Ceze, “We see DNA as potentially the ultimate backup media—super durable, incredibly dense and never becomes obsolete,” he says. “As such, we envision a service that can back up your data—think of it somewhere in the cloud there is a massive back system based on DNA.”

And because this DNA wouldn’t be meant for making living beings, Ceze says it doesn’t have to be flawless to work just fine for storage purposes, and scientists like him could optimize the process as they go along without having to worry about something being born without limbs or vital organs. Cause, you know, DNA is fickle that way.

“The main limiting factors today are cost and speed. But the trends and progress are in our favor,” explains Ceze. “We see no fundamental physics reason why the cost and speed of DNA-based storage can’t be cheap and fast enough for main stream storage.”

A future free of backup failure panic—and filled with pristinely preserved OK Go music videos—is one we’re really looking forward to.

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