Data storage is becoming a huge issue these days with the emergence of big data. With 90% of all data having been produced only in the past 2 years, we need somewhere to store all that data. More than that, we need new methods to store increasing amounts of data such as all the billions of IoT devices being created or all the data-intensive virtual reality experiences we’re going to be creating soon. As it turns out, there’s one storage mechanism that is perhaps the most dense known to man. It’s called DNA data storage technology and it takes advantage of just how much data you can store on a single strand of DNA.
Scientific genius George Church who has done extensive work in the area of gene editing was the first to introduce the idea of DNA data storage to the world back in 2012 when he encoded a book in DNA and then created 70 billion copies of it. Here’s a visual depiction of just how much data is stored in a single strand of your DNA:
That’s about 700 gigs worth of data or 3 billion characters worth, all of which fits on a tiny strand of DNA that’s not even visible to the naked eye. If we could actually use DNA for data storage, we could store all of the world’s data on just 1 kilo of DNA (that’s 2.2 pounds for all you Yanks):
Does the idea of DNA data storage sound farfetched? It’s actually already here, and just recently a company called Helixworks made the news by launching the world’s first commercially available DNA storage drive—the DNADrive.
Founded in 2015, Irish startup Helixworks took in an undisclosed amount of seed funding last year to develop their proprietary DNA data storage technology that they’ve managed to turn in a product rather quickly. While it seems like a publicity stunt more than anything, it’s still the world’s first commercially available DNA data storage device. What’s even more remarkable is that the device will shortly be available to purchase on Amazon for $199:
Before you get too excited, there are a few things worth noting here. First of all, that’s not a lot of data. It’s half a megabyte or about a medium sized picture. The way it works is that you send them your digital data, they encode it in DNA, and then place it in the 24-carat gold capsule you see above. The idea here is that you put some digital memento in there and give it to your loved one to string around her neck. If she wants to see what it says, she’ll have to go down to her local hardware store and buy an Illumina sequencing machine to give it a read. Here’s how they’re actually storing the data using an opensource technique called MoSS:
MoSS – Short form for Molecular Storage System, MoSS stores data in the form of a chemical sequence, a DNA sequence. Both 0 and 1 are represented chemically using MoSS and there will be a sequence identiﬁer to denote which direction to read the sequence in.
The “MoSS method” briefly described above is one way of storing data on DNA. There are many other ways being explored, but Helixworks believes their MoSS method is superior based on the following comparison table:
The first thing that stands out here is MoSS costs a whole lot less when compared to “traditional DNA” data storage methods. Don’t get too excited though. Here’s a comparison table that shows the difference between MoSS DNA data storage and traditional data archiving mediums such as magnetic tape:
There are a few things that stand out immediately in the above table. Read/write speeds are very slow for MoSS, and the cost per gigabyte is 500 million times more than just using a magnetic tape. While the cost of sequencing the genome has fallen off a cliff over the past decade, it’s still prohibitively expensive at this point in time.
Helixworks isn’t the only company working on using DNA for data storage. Companies like Microsoft have been exploring this realm as well. Microsoft started by taking 200 MB worth of data containing documents, artwork, and even a music video and converting all to 1s and 0s. They then sent the sequence to Twist Bioscience to encode it in a DNA strand. Twist sent back the strand to Microsoft and they actually read the data. Microsoft is confident enough that DNA data storage will work that they agreed to purchase ten million long oligonucleotides from Twist Bioscience to encode digital data. They are working with researchers at the University of Washington on the project and published a research paper titled “A DNA-Based Archival Storage System” on the topic. In addition to Microsoft, a chip maker called Micron Technology is also working on DNA data storage in collaboration with researchers at Boise State University. We’d be amazed if IBM wasn’t looking at this too, though no mention of this seems to exist.
While DNA data storage technology is here, it’s just not economically viable yet. When can we expect it to be? Well, it’s not just about the cost of DNA sequencing. The cost to actually write the data is 98% of the total cost. In other words, we need the price of gene editing to fall significantly. Maybe robotic laboratories like Ginkgo Bioworks will eventually make this happen. Until then, at least you’ve got an interesting gift idea for Valentine’s Day next month.
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