Faced with increasing data storage costs and a data volume that was growing faster than the capacity of the hard drives used to hold it, Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney (two researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute in England) needed to find a way to store the massive volume of genomic data being generated by their research group. Their solution? Artificially constructed DNA.
They managed to encode 739.3 kilobytes of unique information using a method that significantly reduced copying errors, a commonly encountered problem with DNA storage. During testing, they encoded and decoded 5 computer files with only a slight glitch when two base segments of DNA went missing. But they’re confident that tweaks to their encoding process will eliminate such errors in the future. They also believe their technology may be capable of storing the roughly 3 zettabytes (a zettabyte is one billion trillion or 10²¹ bytes) of digital data thought presently to exist in the world and still have room for plenty more.
Their research also demonstrated two significant downsides of this storage technology:
- Cost – The estimated cost of their storage method is approximately $12,400 per megabyte
- Slow read back speed – It took them 2 weeks to reconstruct 5, relatively small files
While DNA storage was unfortunately not suitable for storing the genome data they needed to quickly provide over the Internet, the researchers demonstrated the viability of DNA storage for the long-term storage (say 50+ years) of infrequently accessed information provided DNA sequencing and synthesizing costs can be significantly reduced.
For more information, including details of the encoding process, check out a recent Economist article on their research.
For a complete accounting of their research, check out the researchers’ recent article in Nature. A preview of the article is available for free and the article is available via the magazine’s paywall.