DNA data storage record smashed

  • 19/08/2012

By Dan Satherley

Floppy discs, CDs and hard drives – in the future they could all be replaced by DNA.

Scientists at Harvard University have managed to store 700 terabytes of information in a single gram of DNA – a 1000-fold improvement on the previous record.

That's enough to hold 14,000 Blu-Ray discs, or 233 3TB hard drives, weighing 151kg.

"A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole internet," says molecular geneticist George Church.

"It shows that the vast increase in capacity to synthesise and sequence DNA can be applied to store significant amounts of data," says Stanford University synthetic biologist Drew Endy.

"If you wanted to have your library encoded in DNA, you could probably do that now."

To show DNA's massive storage potential, scientists encoded Church's latest genetics textbook, and made 70 billion copies – and they all fit in a single test tube.

DNA has many other advantages over traditional forms of data storage. Not only can it store much, much more, it is much more stable – and could last for centuries or millennia, under the right conditions.

The data cannot however be stored in living cells, as normal biological processes would likely wipe it clean.

"The cell kicks out foreign DNA," says Church. "In a tube, it is less subject to evolution."

Instead of storing it in living tissue, the DNA is chemically synthesised and stored on a tiny glass chip.

The process is still too costly for it to be commercially feasible, but the price is dropping rapidly. In 2001, it cost $10,000 to sequence 1 million pairs of DNA. By 2012, that price had dropped to 10c, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Scientists are exploring DNA as a data storage mechanism because the sheer amount of data created nowadays. In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt estimated every two days, humans create as much data as the entirety of humanity did right up until 2003.

Social networking and user-generated content is largely to blame – every minute of the day, YouTube users upload 48 hours of video and over 200 million emails are sent, according to tech site Mashable.

"For some archival problems, this could be the wave of the future," says Church.

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