Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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