In the century and a half since the discovery of DNA, the double-helix-shaped genetic material has become the new favorite plaything of many branches of science. Cut-and-paste DNA manipulation techniques such as CRISPR/Cas-9 have led to genetic breakthroughs once thought to be the stuff of science fiction. Worryingly, trials of human genetic manipulation have already begun in some countries, fueling fears of an oncoming “Cold War” waged by competing genetic supermen representing the best genes each country has to offer. Now, a team of geneticists from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center have announced a study showing that DNA is a much more versatile tool than scientists once thought.
According to a Columbia University press release, DNA is showing promise as a virtually unlimited medium for data storage. In a breakthrough experiment, the researchers were able to store an entire computer operating system, a digital recording of the 1895 French film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the codes for a $50 Amazon gift card and a computer virus, a picture of a Pioneer plaque, and the text of a 1948 study by information theorist Claude Shannon on a strand of DNA. It is estimated that up to 215 petabytes of data could be stored on a single gram of DNA using their technique.
According to their data published in Science, the researchers believe this application of DNA could revolutionize our data storage capabilities to near impossible levels:
We [report] an efficient and robust coding strategy that enables virtually unlimited data retrieval and high physical density […] DNA might become an economically viable solution for long-term, high-latency storage.
The technique they pioneered is based on the same way that mobile devices stream video. The team converted the binary code for the data into strings of the four DNA nucleotides – A, T, G, and C – and then used powerful error-correction algorithms to encode and decode the data. The researchers claim this technique could be used to store near-unlimited amounts of data on DNA which could maintain its integrity over 40,000 years. With so many apocalypse scenarios presenting themselves in recent years, finding a long-term storage solution might not be a bad idea if we ever want to preserve our history and knowledge for the next race of men to inherit the Earth from our ashes.