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DNA is usually discussed when talking about biological systems. But today, the digital storage world looks at DNA as one possible future. The cells in our body are proof that enormous data are encoded within microscopic DNA. Thoughts on this concept by Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) started over a few beers and gave rise to the idea of cramming digital information into DNA.
The team succeeded in encoding some common digital format data byte-by-byte as DNA molecules. They shipped the molecules to Germany without any special packaging. The molecules were later decoded back into their respective electronic formats. The team convincingly states that the storage capacity can be scaled to create storage capacity beyond all known digital storage capacity of today (around 1 zettabyte).
The major perceived advantages of DNA data storage over digital storage are:
- DNAs can remain stable for very long (10,000s of years) without any special care which makes it a safer place to store digital information. Magnetic tapes used to archive digital data degrade after some years.
- DNA can maintain its integrity without any power supply. Also, its small size and weight make it easy to store and transport.
- DNA is less susceptible to technical failures.
- Digital storage media will soon become obsolete. The different storage media as we know—floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, portable hard drives, thumb drives, and cloud storage all have limited span of life. But as long as living things and biologists exist, someone shall be there to read DNA data.
However, the following disadvantages currently inhibit DNA’s widespread implementation:
- High cost of DNA synthesis per data stored (around US$12,400 per megabyte of data stored).
- Data is read back at low speed.
- DNA is not rewritable, i.e., it can’t update the information it holds without redoing the entire information storing process.
- DNA does not allow random access either, meaning, to access a particular part of the data stored, the entire stored information should be decoded.
When the computer world approaches the limits of encoding huge data on silicon devices and when the cost of sequencing and synthesizing DNA plunge, we might see data centers with DNA storage – optimized and compacted! What do you think? Is this where data storage is heading?