Backups: Local, Cloud, and DNA?

Backups: Local, Cloud, and DNA?

October 18

A lot of businesses are moving data storage offsite to the cloud but a new discovery might have us abandoning the cloud for something inside most living things: DNA. Your dog or cat might soon be a useful storage device, rather than just a food-munching cuddle monster. It’s about time they earned their keep.

A recent article on wired.com explains that it is possible to store data within DNA. In fact, DNA is currently the storage medium with the highest known information density. According to Time.com, a gram can hold 455 billion GB of data while four grams could hold all the data the entire world produces in a year, combine that with a theoretical lifespan of 3.5 billion years and your data storage troubles are over.

Storing data in an animal sounds cool but at this point it’s not exactly practical. Animal DNA storage would be ineffective because if you can get the data into the DNA, the cells die or replicate, and cellular mutations will alter the data from its original state—plus, it might be tough to get your dog to hold still while you plug in a USB cable. Sadly, digital puppy storage would not be very effective at this point.

Instead, scientists use an inkjet printer to embed pieces of synthetic DNA onto the surface of a tiny glass chip. To encode the data, researchers split it into tiny blocks of data and convert those into the DNA’s alphabet of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts instead of binary 1s and 0s. In order to read this data on the DNA, they use a DNA sequencer and a computer that reassembles all the fragments in order, thereby converting them back to digital format.

Putting the idea into practice, researchers were able to convert and embed a whole genetics book onto DNA and translate it back into a digital form with a mere two errors per million bits, equivalent to a few typos.

As cool as this process sounds, DNA sequencers read information sequentially so random access wouldn’t be possible and in a data backup scenario, DNA would function more like tape, a very slow tape. The process of encoding and decoding the genetics book took about two weeks, so it’s not nearly as fast as our current hard drive options.

The other issue is the cost, as with many new and emerging technologies, this process requires in-depth scientific expertise, as well as expensive DNA sequencers and computers. As research continues, this technology will likely become more viable and cost effective. Whether or not we’ll be able to use animals as hard drives is yet to be determined.