Think the memory card in your camera is high-capacity? It’s got nothing on DNA. With data accumulating at a faster rate now than any other point in human history, scientists and engineers are looking to genetic code as a form of next-generation digital information storage.
Now, a team of Harvard and Johns Hopkins geneticists has developed a new method of DNA encoding that makes it possible to store more digital information than ever before. We spoke with lead researcher Sriram Kosuri to learn why the future of archival data storage is in genetic code, and why his team’s novel encoding scheme represents such an important step toward harnessing DNA’s vast storage potential.
5.27-megabits probably doesn’t strike you as a lot (that comes out to roughly 660 kilobytes of information, about what you’d find on a 3.5″ floppy from the 80s), but it’s impressive for at least three reasons:
One: It positively crushes the previous DNA-storage record of 7,920 bits.
Two: The novel encoding method employed by Kosuri and his colleagues allowed them to address issues of cost and accuracy, two long-standing technical hurdles facing DNA storage:
The major reason why this would have been difficult in the past is that it is really difficult to construct a large stretch of DNA with exact sequence, and make it cheaply. We took an approach that allows us to use short stretches of DNA (basically by having an address (19 bits) and data block (96 bits), so each short stretch can be stitched together later after sequencing. Using short stretches allowed us to leverage both next-generation synthesis [for writing data]… and next-generation sequencing [for reading data] technologies to really lower cost and ease.
Three: It offers a compelling proof of concept that DNA can be used to store digital information at remarkable densities. “What we published in terms of scale is… obviously small compared to commercial technologies now,” explains Kosuri, but “using our method, a petabyte of data [one petabyte = 1,024 terabytes] would require about 1.5 mg of DNA.” Since that genetic information can be packaged in three dimensions, that translates to a storage volume of about one cubic millimeter. Edited from i09