Data Storage Method Gives New Meaning to “Thumb Drive”
Anyone who’s seen the inside of a data storage room knows that they’re big, noisy and hot. You would also be right to assume that they’re expensive to manage.
But with information, from the priceless to the petty, piling up faster than we know what to do with, data storage is increasingly becoming a headache for businesses, governments, organizations and families. If only there were a better, more efficient way to compress and then store all of our treasured human artifacts such as VCR user manuals, YouTube cat videos and overzealous reader comments on sci-fi blogs.
Fortunately, scientists in the UK might have cracked the case. According to researchers in the latest edition of the journal Nature, huge amounts of data can be stored on a “device” that’s been with us since, well, the beginning: our DNA. Specifically, they managed to successfully encode then extract 739 kilobytes worth of information, including a photo, Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — all in synthetic DNA molecules. Although 739 kilobytes isn’t particularly impressive, the method of writing such data into our genetic code is without a doubt life-changing. After all, the entirety of human knowledge — books, journals, films, recordings, paintings, photos — has been calculated at 295 exabytes, which is equivalent to 1.2 billion average hard drives. Eventually this amount will surpass what we’re capable of hanging onto.
But what if every last byte could be safely stored not in auditorium-size banks of lifeless computers and servers, which demand constant care and capital, but in the confines of human (or even non-human) DNA?
What if every last newborn carried in her genetic recipe a thorough and accurate account of her species?
The famous Golden Record, which accompanies the Voyager II’s 35-year-old, Solar System-defying mission, contains data documenting human life in the event it is ever picked up by intelligent alien life. It serves as a sort of welcome pamphlet to humanity. Earth’s ambassadors to our intergalactic brethren include photographs of men and women, the Taj Mahal and the Golden Gate Bridge as well as recordings of greetings in different language, children speaking and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Now, however, our bodies themselves can potentially tell the rich story of humanity, similar to how minstrels and poets in ancient societies were once charged with carrying and passing on the stories of their peoples’ great heroes and challenges and triumphs. But unlike the Golden Record or even our (very fallible) memories, DNA can accurately compress and store information for as long as it remains intact — which, as anyone who has seen Jurassic Park knows, could be hundreds of thousands (millions?) of years. Mammoth DNA, in fact, is housed in labs around the world despite mammoths’ extinction many millennia ago.
The implications of DNA data storage contribute to the prevailing idea that, sometime this century, the line separating humans and machines will blur and ultimately disappear. What could possibly make us more machine than becoming walking, talking glorified hard drives?
Before we get too excited, however, it’s important to note that optimizing our DNA for data storage is extremely cost-prohibitive — researchers estimate you would spend $12,400 per megabyte. But like any new technology, prices will eventually drop.
For decades we’ve seen all different kinds of data storage devices. The Selectron tube. Punch cards. Punched tape. Magnetic drums. The hard disk drive. The Laserdisc. The floppy disc. Magnetic tape. Could DNA soon be included on the list?