DNA, nature’s data storage vehicle, has been successfully converted into storing personal files and photos – perhaps eventually replacing the hard drive. Of course any practical use is decades away – but scientists (Ewan Birney, Nick Goldman and collaborators) were able to store a complete set of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a PDF of the first paper to describe DNA’s structure, a mp3 clip from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a text file of an algorithm and a JPEG of the European Bioinformatics Institute, where the research was conducted. As stated in their paper published in Nature, “Digital production, transmission and storage have revolutionized how we access and use information but have also made archiving an increasingly complex task that requires active, continuing maintenance of digital media. This challenge has focused some interest on DNA as an attractive target for information storage because of its capacity for high-density information encoding, longevity under easily achieved conditions and proven track record as an information bearer.”
The process is expensive and time consuming, but the research team found it very accurate and hardy. DNA, when properly treated, can stay intact for thousands of years. The data to be stored is first decompressed and translated into the four bases of DNA – A, G, T, C, using software that Goldman designed, and then those bases are synthesized into strands of DNA. When you want to look at your saved data, simply sequence the DNA strands and then plug the string of AGTC’s back into Goldman’s software, which will convert the data into its original file form.
For DNA data storage to really take off, the price of synthesizing and sequencing DNA needs to be cheaper and easier. Perhaps one day, it will become more of a reality.