Data Storage: From Hard Drive to DNA

DNAPopular TV shows including Hoarders and Storage Wars (and whatever spinoffs I’m not aware of) accentuate our desire to store stuff, supposedly for later use. In 2012, the Self Storage Association reported that one in ten households in America currently rent storage units, a 65% increase from 15 years ago. For the most part, we’re bad at purging our lives of things we’ll probably never use again because, well, shoot – we might find use for it again at some point.

But in recent decades we’ve also developed a need to store digital information – pictures, documents, executable files, even genetic information. Where before large companies had reams and reams of  important paper documents that were passed around the office to whoever need them, now such documents are typically duplicated and emailed, requiring these companies to have large backup servers and a massive local hard drives on which to keep these documents. True, many companies are moving to cloud-based storage, but that only means those companies do not provide the physical storage for their information; rather they outsource it to third-party storage companies who make it more accessible by keeping the same files in multiple locations. Thus files are accessed from whichever datacenter you’re nearest, increasing speed of delivery. But besides taking up a lot of space, it takes a lot of energy to run these datacenters – all those huge processors and hard drives require power to run, and power to keep from overheating.

As NPR noted, two men are changing this problem. Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman, scientists from the European Bioformatics Institute, have figured out how to code digital files onto synthetic DNA. I’ll give you a moment for all the implications to sink in.

Alright. So you’re wondering how they did it, right? The solution’s quite brilliant in its simplicity: They developed a cipher capable of translating one of Shakespeare’s poems written in binary code into the language of DNA – A, G, C, and T. Then they sent the resulting sequence to Agilent Technologies to have it formed into a synthetic double helix. When they got the synthetic DNA back, barely visible in the bottom of a testtube, they reversed it through the cipher. Lo, Shakespeare’s poem emerged.

The implications for this are far-reaching; since all things digital are stored in binary code, they all could potentially be stored as synthetic double helixes. NPR states that estimates of the total amount of text humans have ever written comes to roughly 50 billion megabytes, and Agilent estimates the cost per megabyte to transfer it to synthetic DNA at $12,500. I.e. a number too big for most of us – or maybe just me – to fathom, and that’s only a faction of the total data in the world. Yet that 50 billion megabytes of data, were it stored on synthetic DNA, would weigh less than a granola bar.

4478876573_f66035d307The price of technology can drop quickly. In 1980, a 26 megabyte hard drive would set you back five grand; now you can get one million megabytes for about $75. So who knows? Perhaps in the not-too-distant future datacenters full of power-intensive hard drives will be replaced by powerful processors hooked to hundreds of thousands of tiny strands of synthetic DNA. Then we’ll have the genetic history of our species. Literally.

What other implications/applications did you think of for this? Share them in the comments below!

[CC image credit Hongiiv and Sean MacEntee]

About Lennon Cole

Social Media Coordinator at Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. When he's not writing about business, he's hiking the wee hills of Los Angeles and writing creative nonfiction, for which he's won a Dominic J. Bazzannella Award. Connect with him via Twitter, Google+, and Facebook.

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