Researchers find that DNA could be used for effective archival purposes

August 19, 2015 - 

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) have discovered that DNA could be used to store digital data and preserve essential knowledge for thousands of years, according to a report by The Telegraph.

ETH scientists exploring the archival capabilities of DNA performed a test in which it downloaded error-free data after the equivalent of 2,000 years.

The researchers are now tasked with developing a method of searching for information encoded in strands of DNA contained in a drop of liquid.

“If you go back to medieval times in Europe, we had monks writing in books to transmit information for the future, and some of those books still exist,” said lead researcher Dr. Robert Grass. “Now, we save information on hard drives, which wear out in a few decades.”

According to Dr. Grass, DNA has a “language” similar to the binary code used in computers, but instead of using a combination of zeros and ones to represent data, the DNA code is written in sequences of four chemical nucleotides (A,C,T and G).

The scientists have found that DNA can store more information into a smaller space, while offering greater durability than digital records.

Dr. Grass said that a fraction of an ounce of DNA could theoretically store more than 300,000TB of data.

Based on archaeological findings, DNA dating back hundreds of thousands of years can still be sequenced today.

The team successfully encoded DNA with 83 KB of text from the 1921 Swiss Federal Charter, along with a copy of Archimedes’ The Method from the 10th century.

The DNA was encapsulated in silica spheres and warmed to nearly 71C for a week – the equivalent of keeping it for 2,000 years at 10C. When decoded, it was found to be error-free.

The team is now developing a method to label specific portions of data on DNA strands to make them searchable.

“In DNA storage, you have a drop of liquid containing floating molecules encoded with information,” said Dr. Grass.

“Right now, we can read everything that’s in that drop. But I can’t point to a specific place within the drop and read only one file.”

Dr. Grass added that DNA storage could be used to preserve an entire library’s worth of historical texts, government documents or the archival records of private companies, all in one drop of liquid.

However, it is unlikely that the DNA archival technology will be available to general consumers any time soon, as encoding and saving just a few megabytes of data in DNA can cost “thousands of dollars”.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.