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The Future of Computer Data Found in DNA?

26 Sep, 2012 By: Sand Sinclair imageSource

DNAWe look to the future to gauge where we are headed; in business, in life, and in general activities that are far-reaching, often interacting with the rest of the world. What we do is based on what we know or need to know, ultimately managing information that is vital to our existence.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, writer Robert Lee Hotz poses the “Future of Data: Encoded in DNA” (Aug. 2012). This concept and the far-reaching experiments he exposed are, without question, astounding. Citing much information on DNA engineering as reported in the journal Science, this points a way toward eventual data-storage devices with vastly more efficiency and capacity
for their size than today’s computer chips
and drives.

From Zero to Text

Project senior researcher, George Church, a Harvard University molecular geneticist said, “A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet.”

Hotz cited that Church and his researchers had translated the English text of a coming book on genomic engineering into actual DNA. As we know, DNA contains genetic instructions written in a simple but powerful code made up of four chemicals called bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). The Harvard researchers first started with the digital version of the book, which is composed of the ones and zeros that computers read.

Next, on paper, the team translated the zeros into either the A or C of the DNA base pairs, and changed the ones into either the G or T. Then they used now-standard laboratory techniques to create short strands of actual DNA that held the coded sequence – almost 55,000 strands in all. Each strand contained a portion of the text and an address that indicated where it occurred in the flow of the book. In that form, a viscous liquid or solid salt – a billion copies of the book could fit easily into a test tube and, under normal conditions, last for centuries, the WSJ article detailed. Though this all sounds like science fiction – it is unfolding as science “fact.”

Granted, the technique for this is a long way from being commercially viable. But according to Hotz, “it highlights the potential of DNA as a stable, long-term archive for ordinary information, such as books, photographs, financial records, medical files and videos, all of which today are stored as computer code.”

Can you imagine all significant data, including vast business records and files, on all levels, locally, nationally and globally could be stored this way? It will be possible in the future.

Hotz reminds us that molecular biologists have long known that DNA is a natural information-storage system inside every cell that encodes the recipe for individual heredity, containing “biological instructions.” This way of encoding can be the springboard for other “data” emerging technologies.

Getting Creative

Research groups in the U.S., Europe and Canada devised ways to use DNA to encode trademarks and secret messages in cells. Hotz cites genomics pioneer Craig Venter and colleagues created the first synthetic
cell in 2010, where they wrote their names into its DNA code, the way an artist might
sign a painting, along with quotations and a website address. Other researchers encode poetry and popular music inside the living cells of bacteria.

In addition, as far back as 2003, explains Hotz, genetic engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state created micro-organisms that carry the tune of Disney’s “It’s a Small World (After All)” in their DNA.

As for the cost of synthesizing and sequencing such very long strands of data-rich DNA (as from a book), it remains too high to make the technique a practical commercial data-storage medium for the foreseeable future. But Hotz points out that Dr. Church is confident those costs will drop dramatically, and the speeds increase, as more advanced technology becomes available.

Dr. Church pointed out that the cost of synthesis and sequencing of DNA are plummeting in an unprecedented way, and Hotz learned from the National Human Genome Institute that the production costs of generating raw, unassembled DNA sequence data, such as might be used to archive data, have dropped from $10,000 per million base pairs of DNA in 2001 to about 10 cents per million base pairs in 2012.

The future of computer data could very well lie in DNA coding. With these latest scientific milestones being achieved, it has set in motion a global desire for more “innovative data technologies” to finally emerge in the foreseeable future. Stay tuned.

About the Author: Sand Sinclair

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