Methods for storing data in DNA are becoming more feasible, and may now enable the data to survive intact for over a million years. Researchers in Switzerland have recently conducted successful experiments in this field.
The idea of storing data in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the natural genetic information storage medium, has been around for a number of years. Scientists have already known for some time that information could be stored in a DNA sequence. Now researchers at the ETH Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland have taken a further step towards achieving uncorrupted data storage for a period approaching eternity. Robert Grass, a lecturer at the ETH Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, and his team set out to test the procedure, basing their research on preserving the information-bearing segments of DNA.
The technique used by the ETH scientists to encode and decode data from synthetic DNA
In order to do this, they drew some lessons from fossilised bones. Scientists are able to isolate and analyse genetic material several hundreds of thousands of years old because it has been encapsulated and protected. The ETH research team encapsulated the DNA in microscopic silica spheres (essentially glass) with a diameter of roughly 150 nanometres. Thus they basically created a synthetic fossil in which they encoded documents including Switzerland’s Federal Charter of 1291. To test the robustness of this data storage method they then kept the capsules at a temperature of 60 -70°C for one month. This high temperature serves to replicate within a few weeks the chemical degradation that normally takes place over hundreds of years. Results showed that the DNA encapsulated in the glass shell was particularly robust compared with other storage approaches. Even after such treatment it could be easily separated from the silica glass and the information retrieved intact.
Preserving information for a million years?
The idea is that such information capsules could be stored at around minus 18°C – the temperature maintained inside the Norwegian Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an international venture designed to preserve thousands of seed strains for agricultural posterity. The ETH team reckon that under these conditions the DNA-encoded data can be preserved for a million years.
Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault could serve as a model for storing DNA-encoded information: Global Crop Diversity Trust
Tests have revealed a small margin of error due to current DNA sequencing techniques, but these techniques are constantly improving. Costs are falling and margins of error are becoming smaller every year, and this will certainly continue to boost efforts to store data in DNA form.
Posterity takes precedence over present usage
Having said that, we are still a long way away from DNA-based ‘hard disks’. The Zurich scientists have in the main been focusing their efforts on storing information for the longer term in a more secure manner than is currently being done in data centres, which are able to store data for only a limited period. This research is not intended to revolutionise the storage of data on our everyday devices, but rather to preserve the sum of world knowledge for posterity. As a priority, Dr Grass says he would save the documents in Unesco’s Memory of the World Programme, plus those in Wikipedia, as they provide ‟a good overview of what our society knows, what occupies it and to what extent,” he argues. Back in 2010 a report by the French Academy of Sciences looked into the issue of preserving digital information for posterity.