DNA Data Storage: the Internet may fit in a Shot Glass
The internet is running out of space.
All of the Facebook updates, Twitter rants, and Instagram posts whizzing through the air ultimately need a physical home, but with the “digital universe” expected to grow to over 16 zettabytes — that’s equivalent to some 4 trillion DVDs — by next year, we’re going to need to come up with a better #storage system. Fortunately, nature’s already provided us with a damn efficient one: DNA holds insane amounts of information in a microscopic amount of space. Taking this into account, a team of Microsoft researchers is attempting to harness biology to curb our reliance on #data centers.
It’s an impressive effort and early results are promising. But perhaps the only way to get a sense of what a significant breakthrough DNA data storage could be is to consider the scale of the thing.
How much internet could a single cell’s DNA hold?
In a paper, presented at ASPLOS 2016, a conference dedicated to building “architectural support” for the rapidly expanding digital universe, the researchers point out that DNA can hold up to 1 exabyte (think: the entire Netflix catalog, 3,000 times over) per cubic millimeter. By way of comparison, the densest storage systems on the market today are magnetic tapes, which hold only a 10 gigabytes per cubic millimeter. It’s been estimated previously that a mere 4 grams of DNA could hold all of the digital data we create each year. If we estimate that there is somewhere in the vicinity of 15 zettabytes of digital information on Earth right now, we’d need about 15 cubic centimeters to store it all on DNA. A shot glass would suffice.
These numbers are impressive, but they don’t exactly come as a surprise. After all, each of our cells contains the DNA to encode the entire human genome, a mass of nucleotides that, when squished down into a microscopic cube, would take up about 6.9 cubic micrometers. In terms of storage, that’s the equivalent of 6.9 gigabytes — roughly 1,725 copies of Drake’s new single “One Dance” or about two Blu-Ray-quality copies of the new Star Wars: Force Awakens. If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, keep in mind that the amount of DNA we’re talking about can’t even be seen with the naked eye. Now consider how many times your 8 GB iPhone has pointed out that you’ve run out of storage space.
This isn’t the first time scientists have stored digital data in DNA form: In 2012, a team of Harvard scientists led by George Church, Ph.D., encoded 70 billion copies of their book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA into nucleotide format. The resulting data-filled DNA was small enough to fit on a human thumbnail.