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DNA turned into digital data storage

28 January 2013

By Daryl Ramai

Appeared in BioNews 690

Digital information can be reliably stored in DNA, say scientists.

Researchers developed a method for data storage which they claim has the potential 'to store at least 100 million hours of high-definition video in about a cup of DNA', as reported in a statement from the European Molecular Biology Library (EMBL).

Dr Ewan Birney, who conceived the idea with Dr Nick Goldman, at the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), Cambridgeshire, told the Guardian: 'One of the great properties of DNA is that you don't need any energy to store it. You keep it cold, dry and dark, and it lasts for a very long time. We know that because we routinely sequence woolly mammoth DNA that is kept by chance in those sorts of conditions'.

Scientists created a code to store digital data based on the molecular components that make up DNA - namely the bases denoted by the letters A, C, T and G. The biotechnology company, Agilent Technologies, volunteered to manufacture the DNA based on this code.

'We downloaded the files from the web and used them to synthesise hundreds of thousands of pieces of DNA - the result looks like a tiny piece of dust' said Dr Emily Leproust, of Agilent Technologies.

A range of digital media was encoded, including a text file of all of Shakespeare's sonnets, a pdf of a scientific paper by Watson and Crick, an audio file of part of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech and a photo of the EBI.

In order to avoid the problem of 'typos' that would prevent the data being accurately encoded into DNA, the scientists ensured the encoded data was covered by multiple, overlapping fragments of DNA. 'You would have to have the same error on four different fragments for it to fail - and that would be very rare', said Dr Birney.

When the resulting DNA samples containing the digital data were sequenced and decoded at EBI, the original files were reproduced without any errors.

Addressing concerns over unintended contamination of the environment with the synthetic DNA, Dr Goldman told the BBC: 'The DNA we've created can't be incorporated accidently into a genome; it uses a completely different code to what the cells of living bodies use. And if you did end up with any of this DNA inside you, it would just be degraded and disposed of'.

The cost of producing DNA for data storage is currently too high for this technology to be made commercially available. Further research is underway to improve the technique, which the scientists believe could eventually provide a long term data storage solution.

'We've created a code that's error tolerant using a molecular form we know will last in the right conditions for 10,000 years, or possibly longer. As long as someone knows what the code is, you will be able to read it back if you have a machine that can read DNA', said Dr Goldman.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

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