DNA As An Archival Storage System

DNA is really coming along as a digital storage device. George Church and Sri Kosuri create strands of DNA that store 96 bits (bases represent binary values [T and G = 1, A and C = 0]).

Once in storage, as many copies as you like can be created. Church stored a copy of one of his books - about 700 kilobytes of data - and then made 70 billion copies.

(DNA archival storage video)

To read the data stored in DNA, you simply sequence it — just as if you were sequencing the human genome — and convert each of the TGAC bases back into binary. To aid with sequencing, each strand of DNA has a 19-bit address block at the start (the red bits in the image below) — so a whole vat of DNA can be sequenced out of order, and then sorted into usable data using the addresses.

For long-term archival storage, DNA is a pretty good medium, although the read/write cycle takes a bit longer than your typical SSD. And just think: about four grams of DNA theoretically could store the digital data humankind creates in one year.

Fantasy writer Barbara Hambly uses a similar idea in her 1982 Darwath trilogy. She describes how wizards succeeded in tying information to the DNA of selected individuals.

In the story, several people from 1980's California find themselves transported across the Void to another planet and the Realm of Darwath. They face a deadly species of queerly magical beings - the Dark - who destroyed civilization thousands of years ago. Everything that was made of paper (like books and records) were burned to stave off attacks by the Dark. Tying memories to a few suitable bloodlines was the only way to preserve a record of that period that would endure.

Update 15-Apr-2017: See the Heritable Memories Bloodline from The Time of the Dark (1982) by Barbara Hambly. End update.

Church and Kosuri, on the other hand, reject the idea of using the DNA of living cells:

Although other projects have encoded data in the DNA of living bacteria, the Church team used commercial DNA microchips to create standalone DNA. “We purposefully avoided living cells,” Church said. “In an organism, your message is a tiny fraction of the whole cell, so there’s a lot of wasted space. But more importantly, almost as soon as a DNA goes into a cell, if that DNA doesn’t earn its keep, if it isn’t evolutionarily advantageous, the cell will start mutating it, and eventually the cell will completely delete it.”

SF writers have long wished for high density data storage, of whatever medium. Consider the Schrön Loop from Dan Simmons' 1989 novel Hyperion and the memory diamond from Charles Stross' 2004 novel Iron Sunrise.

Via ExtremeTech and Harvard.

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