Menus Subscribe Search
dna2

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Will DNA Be the Hard Drive of the Future?

• January 25, 2013 • 12:20 PM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

If you can say it in words, you can store it in nucleotides, experimenters have confirmed. And is the new storage medium durable? You bet your Jurassic Park it is.

When the FedEx package arrived from California, its contents were so small as to be invisible. One of the British scientists, a mathematician, worried they’d been sent empty test tubes. His colleague, a molecular biologist, corrected him, turning a vial upside down, tilting it in the light. There, in the bottom, like a thimbleful of dust, were the data: tiny strands of DNA.

Stored in their paired nucleotides were five files, 739 kilobytes of information: a color photograph of the European Bioinformatics Institute, where the researchers worked; an MP3 excerpt of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; the complete text of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets; a PDF of Watson and Crick’s seminal paper describing the double-helix; and a copy of the cipher used to encode the data.

Now, the biologists had to stitch the photo, the speech, and the sonnets back together again. “We sequenced the DNA, we read the sequences, we decoded the information in them,” said Nick Goldman, a geneticist at the U.K.-based EBI. “And indeed it had worked!”

Though it took two weeks and thousands of dollars to sequence all the base pairs, Goldman’s biological “hard drive” revealed its contents almost flawlessly. The strands didn’t hold much data—a tenth as much as an everyday CD-ROM—but the experiment proved that the technique worked. And it could scale massively.

“DNA is a very, very dense piece of information storage,” said Ewan Birney, a member of the EBI team. “It’s very light. It’s very small. The coding scheme that we used would work to a zetabyte level”—a billion gigabytes, or half the total data being stored by all the world’s companies today.

Goldman and Birnery dreamed up the helix-as-hard-drive idea, which appears this week in Nature, over a pint in a Hamburg pub. They were discussing better ways of storing the data their institute collects than magnetic tapes (which degrade) and hard disks (which hog electricity and require constant upkeep). “This is a very real problem at the EBI, because the databases we have to look after are growing exponentially but, sadly, our budgets aren’t,” Goldman said.

Nature, they realized, worked out a simple, compact way of storing information more than three billion years ago. “So over a second beer, we started to write on napkins and sketch out some details of how that might be made to work.”

Goldman and Birney used a cipher to convert bytes (0s and 1s) into nucleotides (Gs, Cs, As, and Ts), with redundancies to minimize the risk of error during synthesis and sequencing. Agilent Technologies, in Santa Clara, California, created the strands and mailed them in a plain cardboard box back to Europe. The biologists discarded the strands with transcription errors and reconstructed the original files. Every sonnet was still there.

Birney admits that the technology is still “breathtakingly expensive.” (Agilent donated its services, worth tens of thousands of dollars alone.) But the costs are entirely up-front. “One of the great properties of DNA is that you don’t need any electricity to store it,” he said. “If you keep it cold, dry, and dark, DNA lasts for a very long time. And we know that because we routinely sequence woolly mammoths’ DNA.”

While the Nature trial was more proof-of-concept than proof-of-marketability, in the paper, Birney and Goldman explore the “switchover point” at which synthesizing DNA makes more economic sense than storing reams of magnetic tape or running a server farm.

At current costs, that timeline is six hundred to 5,000 years. (Birney jokes that, if only early molecular biologists had encoded the Library of Alexandria and buried the strands in a cave in Finland, none of that ancient knowledge would now be lost.) To reach a more realistic switchover point—say, 50 years—the cost of DNA synthesis would need to come down by a factor of 100.

Birney notes that we’ve seen such a reduction in the last decade alone. “Anything that you want to store, we could store. Really the only limit for this is the expense of doing the synthesis, and we believe that will come down in the future.” Given that most of us can remember saving files, not too long ago, on 3.5-inch “floppy” disks, that future’s not difficult to imagine.

For now, “the cloud” is the future of data storage. Can “the helix” be far behind?

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.