Tech Update (May 2016)

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DNA storage could make data centres obsolete

Imagine being able to store a data centre’s worth of information on something the size of a single USB stick. A new technique developed by a team of computer scientists could one day make this possible using something borrowed from nature: DNA.

Researchers from the University of Washington and Microsoft Research have developed one of the first complete systems to encode, store and retrieve digital data using DNA molecules, capable of storing information millions of times more compactly than current data storage technologies.

A paper presented recently at the Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems (ASPLOS) conference in Atlanta describes how four images were successfully encoded into DNA snippets. More significantly, the researchers were able to reverse the process and perfectly retrieve the images without losing a single byte of information.

The images, which are encoded as a string of 0’s and 1’s, are converted into a string of A’s, C’s, T’s and G’s—the bases that pair to form DNA. A DNA molecule with that sequence is then chemically synthesised and dried out for storing with billions of other molecules.

“This works for any digital data, not just images,” says Luis Ceze, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the study.

“We used images because images and video tend to take lots of storage space.”

All the movies, images, emails and other digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10,000 gigabytes) can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of a test tube. Digital data—including videos, photos and text—collected by devices is expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020. At its current rate, the world is producing more data than the capacity to store it. Ceze and his colleagues believe DNA could be the solution to this problem.

Ceze adds, “DNA also never becomes obsolete, unlike that old dusty floppy disk at the bottom of your drawer.”

DNA data storage (Image courtesy: http://marinataracova.com)
DNA data storage (Image courtesy: http://marinataracova.com)

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