Galloping into the future of data storage
31st July 2017 - Last modified 20th March 2018 - 0 comments
Written by Sarah Warnes.
In 1878 British eccentric Eadweard Muybridge (born Edward Muggeridge!) placed 12 cameras along a race track to capture images of a galloping horse in rapid succession. In his attempt to determine if a horse is ever fully airborne he paved the way for the development of the motion picture industry. Over a 100 years later these iconic images have been encoded, captured and retrieved from the DNA of living bacteria.
We all know our genetic code makes us what we are, it can tell us who we were from the DNA of our ancestors and predict our health in the future. Forensic examinations of our DNA can even tell if we have committed a crime. All this information is stored in 3D biomolecules first identified by Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher in 1869 and the complex structure of DNA was eventually defined in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick.
Over the last 40 years the idea of using DNA to store large amounts of coded data began to emerge. DNA is a molecule which stores information in a non-linear fashion and has the potential for storing huge amounts of data. With suitable encryption methods, DNA could offer readable and reliable data storage for millennia in controlled environmental conditions away from the presence of water and air. The names of eminent scientists, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ and, somewhat aptly, Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper have all been written into artificial DNA molecules.
In the current digital age, our demand for data storage is an ever-growing monster. In 2012 worldwide storage capacity was estimated at 2.72 zettabytes (2.72 x 1021 bytes!) which has been calculated to increase to 44ZB by 2020! Just 4g DNA can store all the world’s data for one year and the entire data to date can be held in 1 cubic inch of DNA! Initial problems with the cost of synthesising DNA and laborious sequencing methods are now being overcome. So, is the development of DNA hard drives a ‘viable’ option now?
This recent study by Professor Church and his colleagues at Harvard, optimised data incorporation into the DNA of living cells, which was maintained through several cell divisions and could still be retrieved. They demonstrated this by recovering the images of Muybridge’s galloping horse from the bacterial DNA one frame at a time. Whether this could eventually translate into everyone having ID numbers incorporated into their DNA is yet to be seen, eg the propensity of DNA to mutate and change over time has to be taken into account.
However, as the authors from this study postulate, DNA introduced into living cells could be used as a ‘molecular recorder’. Examples suggested include tracing and identifying a running record of the effects of pollution in our environment from DNA introduced into microbes, and monitoring the development of complex cells in human and animal brains and organs.
Whatever the application we just have to hope that no one forgets the encryption code!
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Written by Sarah Warnes – Scientific Writer, PhD