To understand just how vast this amount of data is, consider that one gram of DNA could hold all of the data on “Google, Facebook and every other major tech company, with room to spare” (1).
Robert Grass of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and his colleagues are exploring the storage of data on DNA strands. The challenge has been to find a way to increase DNA longevity. The goal is to store encoded data on DNA strands for “thousands or millions of years”.
By analyzing how information is encoded onto DNA strands of fossilized animals, the team utilized an “error-correcting technique called a Reed-Solomon code”. The “Reed-Solomon codes are block-based error correcting codes with a wide range of applications in digital communications and storage.” (2)
These codes are used to correct errors within a system. To accomplish this, the Reed-Solomon encoder takes a “block of digital data and adds extra ‘redundant’ bits” to correct damaged or missing data due to such things as scratches (CD), noise or other type of interference. The Reed-Solomon encoder attempts to recover the data (original) and then corrects through the decoding processes.
This technique allows scientists to “reconstruct garbled bits of data”. In DNA, the garbled data is typically the result of “holes” within the DNA strands caused by degradation and damage. The Reed-Solomon encoder reconstructs the damaged data by “repairing and filling in” the missing pieces of data.
Fossilized DNA May Hold Key to Data Storage
Scientists explored the possibility of using the same methods found in fossilized DNA for the storing of data. In extracting DNA from the fossilized bones of a 700,000 year old horse (3), they were able to sequence the DNA.
Another successful genome sequencing was done on the fossilized bones of an 110,000 year old polar bear (4).
Preserved DNA like this was thought to hold the key to the challenge of storing data on DNA. Since DNA eventually deteriorates, the data storage life has been the greatest challenge scientists have faced in accomplishing their goal. If the degradation of DNA is stopped, then theoretically DNA could be used to store data for possibly millions of years.
Since the past research of these fossilized bones demonstrated that DNA strands were preserved long enough for scientists to recover the animals’ entire genome, scientists decided to try a similar method to preserve their DNA encoded data (5).
Glass Encapsulated DNA Data Could Survive for 2,000 years
Several methods of preserving DNA were tried and eventually the team “encapsulated the DNA in microscopic spheres of glass”.
According to a New Scientist article (Glassed-in DNA Makes the Ultimate Time Capsule) published in February 2015, the Swiss scientists tested data storage on glassed-in DNA by encoding 83 kilobytes of data onto the DNA. They stored the DNA for a week at temperatures of 60°C, 65°C and 70°C to simulate the natural aging process of fossilized bone DNA.
The test proved very successful. The data was still readable and had no errors. The scientists determined the test results could mean DNA stored at 10°C would be preserved for 2,000 years.
In fact, they calculated that a true time capsule could be created using this method and technology if the DNA was stored at the Artic Global Seed Vault. The seed vault maintains a temperature of -18°C and DNA stored at this temperature should last over 2 million years.
While Grass wants to store the entire world knowledge to date, the expense is prohibitive. For example, Wikipedia would cost billions of dollars to encode onto DNA.
To narrow the scope and approach a more reasonable cost, Grass suggested a focus on information that future historians would want to know. That information he emphasized would need to be neutral about the current times. Grass and his team aren’t the only scientists exploring DNA storage.
Other scientists have had success in storage data on DNA. In 2012, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Assistant Professor Sriram Kosuri (6) successfully “stored a colleague’s book on DNA”. The New Scientist reported that Kosuri (7) is currently “working with the band OK Go to store their latest album” on DNA.
In the future, it’s possible that DNA data storing might be a common way to save files that will last for millions of years.