But as it turns out, nature has taken care of that far before we came along, with DNA able to store information about our entire evolution. So, making use of biomimicry, a team of researchers from the University of Washington are working on a technique to store and retrieve data from DNA molecules.
In order to start the process, the researchers first have to convert the data they want to store (in the experiment the team stored and recovered three pictures), or more precisely its string of ones and zeroes, into the four building blocks of DNA – adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine.
Using Hoffman coding, a common approach for lossless data compression, the team then attempts to insert as much data as they can into as short a string of code as possible, all without getting any errors. According to Luis Ceze, one of the researchers involved in the process,
We’re essentially repurposing it to store digital data — pictures, videos, documents — in a manageable way for hundreds or thousands of years.
Next, after deciding on how to represent the file they want stored, the researchers go about synthesizing DNA based on the calculations. Of course, distinctive markers are placed within the DNA strands in order to ease the data recovery. Even more impressively, the DNA can also be dehydrated in order to be stored for use at a later time.
By sequencing the aforementioned markers, the team then sequences the sample and finds the starting point of a file. Next, all that’s left is to read back the combination of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, convert it back into the original digital data, and the files are fully restored.
Even though the published study only focused on images, the team points out that images are just the beginning. The same technique can be sued to store audio, video, and pretty much any other sort of digital files. According to the team, it would be possible to shrink the space needed to store data that would right now occupy a full Walmart to the size of a sugar cube.
Still, the technology needs a lot of improvement, as it is currently very expensive and it takes a lot of time to complete. But the storage abilities of DNA are undeniable, and the potential of the technique is totally worth further investigations.
Image source: YouTube