A few years back, a multinational research team based out of Europe made a startling announcement: They had developed a process for storing massive amounts of digital data in microscopic DNA strands.
Theoretically, according to the research, the process could store up to 300,000 terabytes of data in a fraction of an ounce of DNA — which could last for thousands of years. By comparison, today’s most powerful desktop hard drives hold around 6 terabytes of data, and might last 50 years.
This week, the researchers moved their theory a few steps closer to practical application. At the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the team demonstrated DNA-encapsulated information had endured the equivalent of 2,000 years with no errors upon decoding.
The passage of time was approximated by embedding the DNA is silica spheres and heating it up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for one week. That equates to about 2,000 years at 50 degrees. When the DNA has unpacked and decoded, the information was preserved intact and error-free.
The encoded DNA contained only a small amount of data — about 80 kilobytes of text from the work of Archimedes and Swiss National Charter. (That’s a bit of regional pride — the research headed up by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, or ETH.) In previous tests, the researchers had successfully encoded images, audio and video — pretty much anything that can be broken down into digital binary code.
Besides the radical miniaturization involved, the big advantage of using DNA over traditional hard drives is durability. DNA storage does not require a constant supply of electricity, but other no-power archiving materials — magnetic tape, say — tends to degrade within a decade.
Next up, the researchers hope to develop a kind of labeling system for searching within data encoded in DNA molecules.
“In DNA storage, you have a drop of liquid containing floating molecules encoded with information,” writes lead researcher Robert Grass of ETH in the official news release. “Right now, we can read everything that’s in that drop. But I can’t point to a specific place within the drop and read only one file.”