Video: Can DNA preserve our data?

Molecular Biologist Nick Goldman and his team at the European Bioinformatics Institute, have created a way to use DNA to store data. “All the information in the world could be encoded and stored in DNA, and it would fit in the back of a SUV,” says Nick Goldman in this video for the World Economic Forum. He explains why DNA is a stable, long term way to store digital information that might otherwise be lost.

Watch the video for the full talk or read key quotes below

On DNA as nature’s hard drive

“DNA is the hard drive, the memory in every cell in every living organism that has the instructions for how to make that cell. It’s a chemical molecule, and is four different kinds of molecules that can be stuck together in a chain, and you can put those four in any order and if you read that back you have a sequence of characters. If you want to think of it like a digital code.”

“We have a big data revolution in genomics. Ten years ago the cost of sequencing a genome of one person or one living organism was about the same as the most expensive house in London. And ten years later, the cost of sequencing one genome was the price of a season ticket to Arsenal football club. The price is plummeting and scientists are doing more and more genome sequencing.”

On hiding a message in DNA

“After scientists have sequenced a genome, they want to keep their data safe – and that’s where I come in – so they send their data via the internet and ask us to store that information. We buy more and more computer servers, and more and more hard disc drives to store this information. And we started to realise all the information we’re storing is about DNA, but DNA itself could be a digital storage medium. We thought maybe we could manipulate some DNA to put a message in there ourselves. Life on earth has used DNA as its hard disc drive for hundreds of millions of years, so maybe we could use it too.”

“We devised an experiment to see if DNA was a good way to store information. We had to decide what would be high value information that you might want to store for a long time in a DNA format? We thought about a .txt file of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and an .mp3 of Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream”; and because we’re molecular biologists at heart, a .pdf of Watson and Crick’s paper from 1953 describing the helix structure of DNA in living cells. We encoded those and had it made into DNA by the Agilent company in California. And we got back a tiny bit of dust at the bottom of a test tube, and that was the DNA.”

On reading DNA

“Can we get the information back out? Yes, we can read DNA easily and cheaply, and we can copy it. But writing it in the first place is very difficult. It takes too long and is very expensive, and this is the rate limiting step. So, you could encode all the information in the world into DNA, but there isn’t enough money on earth to be able to do that.”

“But it’s a good solution for the challenge of creating a long term digital archive. Within a few years all forms of digital media become obsolete. No one on the earth is currently archiving digital information, yet most information is now being created, stored and observed digitally. But how long will memory sticks last, compared with DNA?”

“We’ve looked at mammoth DNA that is 20,000 years old and ancient horses with 700,000 year old DNA sequences that have been successfully read. All you need is somewhere very cold and dry to store it, and as long as we have humans that are technologically advanced, we will be able to read DNA. So, what are we going to store in the long term? Maybe the American presidential records, or where nuclear waste has been dumped, or even our family photographs.”

Author: Nick Goldman is a molecular biologist at the European Bioinformatics Institute.

Image: A researcher, seen through a window, prepares DNA in a laboratory. REUTERS/Robert Pratta. 

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