Think you’ve heard it all? If so, get ready for a welcome surprise. A couple of scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute, a research center in the UK that specializes in the storage and organization of biological data, have found a way to store petabytes of data on a hard drive the size of a dust particle. What’s the trick? DNA.
Like all great discoveries, the idea of scientists Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman was an entirely accidental one, aided by that elixir of profundity, the lubricant of genius minds: beer. While hanging out at a pub and trying to come up with an answer to the very practical issue of storage for their rapidly expanding banks of data in light of budgetary limitations, the two had a shared flash of genius. They started drawing out their ideas on napkins and pretty soon had come up with a framework for how to store all sorts of data – not just text, but even media files – onto tiny strands of DNA that are barely visible to the human eye.
When Did DNA Storage Become Conceivable?
Birney and Goldman weren’t the first to dream up this uniquely sci-fi scenario. In 2012, synthetic biologist George Church advanced on the already existing concept of writing data directly onto the genomes of living cells by finding a workaround to one of the procedure’s biggest hurdles: the fact that the lifespan of a single cell isn’t quite up to par with that of your average computer hard drive. Cells die, and they can take everything with them when they go, especially data. Church, who works at Harvard Medical School, introduced a method of writing the DNA data onto a glass chip, with a conversion error rate of only two errors for every one million bits.
Later on, Birney and Goldman took it further by tripling up on the amount of achievable storage space and cramming 2.2 petabytes of data (or the rough equivalent of half a million DVDs) onto a gram of DNA. To demonstrate, they stored all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in text format, an audio snippet of Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, and a digital snapshot of their work space The reported accuracy rate in deciphering the data once it had been encoded was 100 percent.
The Future of Enterprise Data
For now, things are likely to continue as they have been with enterprise storage, with everyone from gargantuan corporations to individual users storing information on hard drives that have to be maintained and updated on a regular basis, and looking to the cloud for relief. While that might not sound like much of a hassle to the casual reader, it’s a big deal to enterprise companies that have to shell out untold figures for constant care, maintenance, electricity costs, and physical real estate in which to house their data servers.
Data stored to a DNA strand, on the other hand, just needs to be kept in a cool dry place and it’ll last for thousands of years. Long enough, in other words, for even the laziest of procrastinators to eventually get around to making a backup; and certainly small enough for a company with server farms scattered across the globe to condense all that expensive real estate down into a space about the size of a desk drawer.
When Will DNA Storage Hit Consumers?
Don’t expect to be able to run out and buy your own DNA hard drive anytime soon. The reason for this are the incredible costs associated with DNA synthesis. In dollars and cents, the estimated cost to store a single megabyte of data today would be around $12,000. By comparison, you can guy a one gigabyte thumb drive for under $5.
However, that may no longer be the case in another 10 years, as technology gets cheaper and faster. Experts predict that in about a decade’s time, the DNA route for data storage will finally reach the break-even point for most large companies. Beyond that, it’ll only be a matter of time before you’ll be forced to make the decision on where to store your library of family photos: an external hard drive, or a strand of DNA.