To Preserve Digital Data, DNA Will be The Save Button of the Future

Researchers believe we will soon be able to use DNA to encapsulate our most precious digital data, meaning that the building blocks of our bodies may soon be the very thing that will become the hard drives of the future.

The Challenge of Preserving Digital Data

Digital data has become so prevalent in our lives, it is almost hard to remember the times when we didn’t require usernames and passwords to access our memories, our friends, and our social lives. However, with the added convenience of modern technology has come a very real problem in the relatively short shelf-life of these very devices that we rely on to store all our information.

This week, a team of researchers presented their work of using DNA in digital data at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The novel research has been able to alleviate the issues of longevity in regards to modern technologies, like the hard drive, which always inevitably fails (especially when we need it the most, it seems).

Robert Grass and the researchers at ETH Zurich have been able to store and translate digital data using DNA, touting a remarkable preservation life of over 2,000 years for the data their transferred.

For some of us, we wouldn’t mind losing digital data from our past (I’m looking at you, Myspace and old Xanga blogs from middle school); much of the information we do save that may be necessary in the future can really benefit from this new technology.

How ETH Zurich Will Evolutionize the Save Button for Digital Data in the Future

Grass and the other researchers from ETH Zurich noticed a major flaw in how we save our digital data. Our hard drives wear out and not in hundreds of years, but just a few decades. Meanwhile, archaeologists are unearthing books written hundreds, if not thousands of years ago with perfectly preserved information.

DNA is getting a lot of buzz in the press

The researchers realized that the key to preserving the old relics was in the DNA. It proved a worthy technology as it used a four code sequence (remember biology class when you learned A-T-C-G bases in DNA?) whereas our computer systems use a similar structure called binary, which is comprised of 0’s and 1’s to encode data. But more than that, DNA had two major factors.

The first factor is the extremely small size of DNA, which is definitely needed if all the information in this digital age is going to be stored for thousands of years. Think of the average external hard drive, which is similar in size to John Green’s latest paperback book. That one hard drive can only store approximately 5 terabytes of information. In comparison, DNA can store over 300,000 terabytes, in only a fraction of an ounce of DNA.

While size does matter in this context, durability is the second factor and probably just as important to ensure the safe encoding and storage of digital data. That external hard drive you have may last about 50 years, but DNA has been able to be analyzed from thousands of years ago. What’s more is that the ancient DNA from archaeology and paleontology digs proves that this same DNA can still be sequenced thousands of years later.

Digital Data Technology May Use DNA-Based Hard Drives

Grass’ researchers have already encoded DNA with text from the Swiss Federal Charter and the Method of Archimedes, which comes out to be around 83 kilobytes of information.

Their findings revealed that after encapsulating the DNA, warming it to 160-degrees Fahrenheit for a week to replicate the conditions of 2,000 years passing by, they were still able to decode the information without any errors. Since that was a success, they are moving on to the next issue with DNA preservation of digital data: a filing system. Rather than having to decode the entire strand of DNA, the researchers want to be able to pinpoint the specific location of one file.

Digital DNA Storage Too Expensive? Maybe This Is A Better Option For You

Though the project has ensured the technology is available, whether or not it is within your price range will vary. With just a few megabytes of digital data encoding and storing costing upwards over thousands of dollars, unless you’re part of the elite upper class, the “old-fashioned” save button may be your only option for now.

Title Picture Credit to Steve Jurvetson
Additional Image Credit to Wonderlane

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