Scientists have for the first time used DNA to encode the contents of a book. At 53,000 words, and including 11 images and a computer program, it is the largest amount of data yet stored artificially using the genetic material.
The researchers claim that the cost of DNA coding is dropping so quickly that within five to 10 years it could be cheaper to store information using this method than in conventional digital devices.
Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA – the chemical that stores genetic instructions in almost all known organisms – has an impressive data capacity. One gram can store up to 455bn gigabytes: the contents of more than 100bn DVDs, making it the ultimate in compact storage media.
DNA has numerous advantages over traditional digital storage media. It can be easily copied, and is often still readable after thousands of years in non-ideal conditions. Unlike ever-changing electronic storage formats such as magnetic tape and DVDs, the fundamental techniques required to read and write DNA information are as old as life on Earth.
Digital data has traditionally been stored as binary code: ones and zeros. Although DNA offers the ability to use four “numbers”: A, C, G and T, to minimise errors Church’s team decided to stick with binary encoding, with A and C both indicating zero, and G and T representing one.
The sequence of the artificial DNA was built up letter by letter with the string of As Cs Ts and Gs coding for the letters of the book. It was later “read” using standard techniques of the sort used to decipher the sequence of ancient DNA found in archeological material. To store the information long term, the artificial DNA should ideally be kept frozen.
The book – an HTML draft of a volume co-authored by the team leader – was written to the DNA with images embedded to demonstrate the storage medium’s versatility. DNA is such a dense storage system because it is three-dimensional. Other advanced storage media, including experimental ones such as positioning individual atoms on a surface, are essentially confined to two dimensions."