90% of the information available today was generated in the last 2 years, and it is increasing at such accelerated speeds that it leads us to ask ourselves… Where and how will we store all this data?
In 2012, Harvard geneticist George Church introduced for the first time the use of DNA as a storage medium, coding an entire book in this biomolecule and creating 3 trillion copies of it. Currently, progress is being made to make this idea viable. Discover the latest developments below.
Each of us produces and stores digital information. When typing on your computer, mobile, tablet or laptop, each single letter is translated into 8 bits of information (or combinations of 8 zeros (0) and ones (1)), which are then recorded on your memory card, USB or hard disk in the form of net charge or potential load magnetic. If we compare this storage medium with a light bulb; the 0, which remains printed as a basal potential, would represent an extinguished light bulb while the 1, which supposes a deviation or increase of that potential, would be associated to a lit bulb. Considering that a letter equals to 1 byte (or 8 bits) and that a USB of average capacity can store 16 Gigabytes (16,000,000,000 bytes or characters), imagine how many hard disks would be necessary to store all the information that is continuously generated on our planet. In the long term, we have a problem.
“Information is the fuel of the 21st century, and data analytics the combustion engine”. Peter Sondergaard, Executive Vice President of Research and Consulting at Gartner Inc.
DNA is a double helix consisting of a combination of 4 basic nucleotides (Adenine, Thymine, Guanine and Cytosine) that makes each of us unique and different from the rest of species. This molecule stores genetic information in most living beings and it first appeared more than 3.5 billion years ago, which is an indicator of its resistance and stability. Its compression power is reflected in the fact that if we unroll the DNA contained by only one of our cells, this double strand would have a length of 2 m. Therefore… What would happen if we unroll all the DNA in our body? We could go and return from the Moon a couple of times!
That is why DNA is a potential data warehouse. A single strand of DNA, invisible to the naked eye, could store around 3 billion characters (which is equivalent to 3 Gigabytes). In fact, we would be able to store all the current information of the world in just 1 kg of DNA. In addition to its greater compressive power, stability and resistance, this type of bio-storage consumes 400 million times less energy than a hard drive.
«The information necessary to specify the design of all the species of organisms which have ever existed on the planet, a number according to G. G. Simpson of approximately one thousand million, could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information in every book ever written». – Michael Denton, australian-british molecular biologist in its work Evolution: a Theory in Crisis.
However, these storage systems are still way below current devices (i.e. hard drives) in terms of economic cost and speed of writing / reading. That is why efforts are being directed towards the creation of new, faster, portable and more cost-efficient sequencing methods with the ability to read longer DNA fragments.
Although traditionally the 4 letters (nucleotides) of DNA were used to store data and thus increase the compression rate, Helixworks has recently developed a new technology, called MoSS (Molecular Storage System), which respects the current binary combinations, translating 0s into Adenines and 1s into Timines. Guanines and cytosines are still present for molecule stabilization. In this way costs are reduced and sequencing or “reading” speed is increased, since it would only be necessary to read 2 letters instead of 4. However, this Irish company is not the only one involved. Microsoft with the collaboration of Twist Bioscience are also making progress in this field.
It seems that we are approaching the era of biological storage, are not we?
But… When will it come?
“We’re not in an information age anymore. We’re in the information management age.” Chris Hardwick, comedian and American actor.
The future is much closer than we think. In fact, Helixworks has already announced the launch of the first “DNA USB“. It will have 512 Kilobytes of memory and it will be available in Amazon for $199. But do not get too excited. Some will have realized they will not be able to store a decent photo on this device. Furthermore, you would need to buy a sequencer of at least $1,000 to be able to read the message. Helixworks launches this product focused on lovers, so that you can leave a DNA message to your loved one wrapped in a golden capsule as a pendant. Isn’t it romantic? Although maybe a bit expensive for some pockets.
What about you? When do you think massive commercialization of “DNA USBs” will occur? and what sequencing method will make it possible?