Scientists have shown how DNA can be used as storage medium for huge amounts of digital information, by encoding on DNA microchips the contents of a book containing 53,000 words, 11 images, and a computer program. This amount of data, weighing in at some 5.27-megabits, is far bigger than the largest dataset that had previously been encoded in DNA, which amounted to a relatively insignificant 7,920 bits.

The achievement is reported by three researchers at Harvard Medical School, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Johns Hopkins University. George Church, Ph.D., Yuan Gao, Ph.D., and Sriram Kosuri, Ph.D., used the latest techniques in nucleic acid synthesis and sequencing to develop a relatively cheap and easy method to store and subsequently read digital data as DNA. Their reported technique is also far more sophisticated than past DNA storage approaches, and can be carried out completely in vitro, negating the cloning and stability issues of prior attempts.

Drs. Sosuri et al claim using DNA for digital storage has numerous advantages. For example, DNA is easily copied, can remain stable for thousands of years without degrading and, unlike some platforms (think cassette tapes, here), won’t become obsolete in years to come. “DNA’s essential biological role provides access to natural reading and writing enzymes and ensures that DNA will remain a readable standard for the foreseeable future,” the investigators point out.

Critically, DNA can package huge amounts of data in essentially a very small volume. “Density, stability, and energy efficiency are all potential advantages of DNA storage,” they continue. And as the costs of DNA sequencing continue to drop dramatically (at a far faster rate than electronic media) and handheld DNA sequences are becoming available, synthesizing the DNA and subsequently reading it will become even cheaper and easier. 

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