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BusinessDay: DNA could revolutionise data storage

Our digital footprint is increasing at a rate beyond our capacity to store it on conventional hard drives.

By Johan Steyn, 10 July 2024

Suppose you could fit all of the films that have ever been created into a single test tube. The idea is reminiscent of science fiction, but it actually provides a glimpse into the future of data storage. We are now confronted with an overwhelming amount of digital material, which includes anything from videos of cats to photographs of babies, tweets, Google Docs and far more. 

The size of our digital footprint is increasing at an exponential rate, beyond our capacity to store it on conventional hard drives. Despite its limits in terms of longevity and space efficiency, magnetic tape, which is evocative of VHS and cassette tapes, continues to maintain a significant portion of our digital archives.

Synthetic DNA, on the other hand, is a game-changing technique that is now in the process of being created. The incredible amount of data that can be stored in just 3g of DNA is like filling a swimming pool with jelly beans — equivalent to 600-million gigabytes. This biological marvel, which under perfect conditions has the capacity to exist for hundreds of thousands of years, provides a viable alternative to the many storage media that are now in use.

In a very small vial, vital information such as passwords can be securely saved with the assistance of synthetic DNA that has been replicated in a laboratory. This facilitates the storage of the information. Data will be saved even in the face of technological obsolescence, which is a striking contrast to the unpredictability of using old floppy discs or storage formats that have become obsolete. 

The process of encoding data into DNA includes translating binary code, which consists of zeros and ones, into the language of DNA bases, which is four letters: A, T, C and G. Once the DNA has been synthesised, it can be stored indefinitely in a dry and cold environment, where it will remain until it is retrieved in the future using more powerful sequencing technology.

At the moment, obtaining data from DNA necessitates the use of specialised laboratories and can take several days. However, continual developments promise that in the years to come procedures will be both faster and more cost-effective.

The evolution of DNA storage technology has brought to the fore the challenge of encoding data directly into human DNA. While this concept is on the horizon, its realisation is accompanied by a host of ethical and technical dilemmas. Now, the preferred method involves storing synthetic DNA in highly controlled environments. This approach guarantees the longevity and safety of the data while preserving the biological integrity of the organism. This careful management ensures that data remains secure and accessible without compromising the natural functions of DNA within living organisms.

Though DNA storage is now a specialised and costly alternative, the fact that it is able to survive and develop alongside technological advancements is evidence that it has a promising future ahead of it. DNA has the potential to become the gold standard for maintaining the collective memory of humanity as we navigate the ever-expanding digital landscape. This would be a testament to our ability to blend the most cutting-edge scientific knowledge with the centuries-old knowledge that nature has to offer.


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