Using DNA instead of DVDs to store data

Using DNA instead of DVDs to store data

Summary: Scientists have figured out how to use DNA as a way to store data.

TOPICS: Storage, Health

Here at ZDNet Health, we love a good, ripped-from-a-science-fiction-movie-plot application of science and technology.

Perhaps you've never thought of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) as a recording medium like a DVD. But scientists have figured out how to use DNA, the very molecule encoding the genetic instructions for all known living organisms, as a way to store data. So far, they've managed to record, store, re-extract, and play Dr Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech and some sonnets by Shakespeare. They've managed to store text, audio clips, and photographs and restore them with 99.99 percent accuracy. That's better accuracy than lossy MP3s and JPEG images!

According to scientists quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal, DNA could be the perfect storage mechanism, and possibly a solution to our big-data problems. The DNA molecule is stable, durable, and dense. It's not alive, and could be kept passively in a storage device for thousands of years. It's also capable of holding a lot of information. For example, one single cup of DNA could, in theory, store about 100 million hours of high-definition video.

I have been sitting here for a few minutes just imagining possibilities. What if, in the future, we all end up with DNA writers attached to our laptops? What if we could send a message to someone in a cloned animal or person, sort of like that cat was carrying a galaxy around in a bauble on its collar in Men in Black? What if we could encode our DNA to lose or gain weight or height, or change our hair color? Could a person be "written" from the best things humanity has created? Or would we just end up with 1,000 Kardashians? Where would we end and our data begin?

Watch this video, it will bottle your mind. Yes, I said it that way on purpose*.

*Bragging rights go to the first person who can name the movie where the idea of "mind bottling" originated. What bottles your mind? Talk back below.

Topics: Storage, Health


Denise Amrich is a Registered Nurse, the health care advisor for the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, and a mentor for the Virtual Campus at Florida's Brevard Community College.

Nothing in this article is meant to be a substitute for medical advice, and shouldn't be considered as such. If you are in need of medical help, please see your doctor.

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  • Biological implications

    This goes hand in hand with the biological implications of DNA printing. When we get to the point we can casually use it for storage... it's going to be interesting.

    Champion polo horse cloning is already big business.

    Care to download your friend's pleasant golden retriever, print it out and have it "created" at the local cloning lab?

    How about custom-tailored cells designed to fight whatever infection you are currently dealing with?

    Not to mention the darker possibility of downloading actual biological viruses.
  • Why wouldn't you think DNA could store information

    like a DVD? That's what it is: An information storage system.
  • MP3 and JPEG are inaccurate *on purpose* . . .

    "They've managed to store text, audio clips, and photographs and restore them with 99.99% accuracy. That's better accuracy than lossy MP3s and JPEG images!"


    MP3 and JPEG are inaccurate *on purpose* because the eyes and ears won't notice a tiny bit of distortion. They aren't meant for typical data storage, and aren't meant to guarantee any level of accuracy. They're meant to get 10:1 or better compression ratios.

    BTW, if it's already getting 99.99% accuracy, you could probably use ECC to get it the rest of the way to something acceptable for today's storage needs.

    Many questions remain, though - is it practical? What are the size and cost of the read/write mechanisms? How fast can it be read from or written to, especially compared to modern technology? Is it random access? If not, how quickly can it get to an arbitrary position? Can any issues that arise be reasonably solved?

    DNA is a fantastic molecule, but making it work with machines is a pretty big leap from how it's used today. Hopefully it doesn't see any major obstacles.
    • Uh, no, it's not

      It is not lossy "on purpose". That is simply a bi-product of the methodology. Being "on purpose" means/implies that this feature was one of the intended consequences. Lack of true fidelity was NOT one of the stated goals of compression algorithms.
      • It very much is intended, as it's considered acceptable.

        Uh, yes it is. If you don't want to lose fidelity, you use a lossless format such as PNG.

        The methodology for JPEG was chosen because it offers large compression ratios, and as a side effect you lose fidelity. It is an intended consequence because it's considered an acceptable tradeoff. If it were not an acceptable tradeoff, then everybody would be using PNG and JPEG would never had been invented.
        • Um no, it is NOT

          Where in the specifications do you see the desire to lose data?!? the fact that it IS considered acceptable has NOTHING to do with whether it is intended. It is an unintended consequence of how they do the compression. If it were possible to get that level of compression with no loss of data, it would be done.
          None of what you wrote has any bearing on whether or not it was intended, just acceptable.
          If I am painting a car, and get a little overspray on the masking, it may be acceptable, but that does NOT mean it is intended. To turn your rebuttal on its head, if it were intended, I wouldn't have put down masking tape.
  • Very interesting....

    just a shame we may have to wait 10 years or so to see if it becomes practical for eveyday use. Thanks for this article. :-)
  • Ethical and legal implications

    "Or would we just end up with a thousand Kardashians?"
    That would be quite horrible indeed. But I think if we can get 1 Nicola Tesla.
    I am sure you understand this has very significant ethical implications. Human cloning is not something currently approved in the world. According to the UN General Assembly human cloning should be banned by member states because it is contrary to human dignity.
    As for storage- nature has used that for millions of years. We can try to but the devil is in the details as CobraA1 points out correctly.
  • Until They Can Figure Out The Biological Equivalent Of Reed-Solomon CIRC... wouldn't want your precious data to spontaneously "evolve", now, would you?
    • And without a mechanism for natural selection...

      … how are you claiming that would happen, exactly?
      Evolution doesn't just happen, it happens for a reason.
      Now if you want to say you are talking about "mutation" rather than "evolution" modern data storage technologies suffer from that.
      • Evolution doesn't just happen, it happens for a reason.

        The very premise of evolution is accidental, by chance, without design or direction. To say it has a reason is to deify evolution.
        • Not exactly.

          You need to introduce a bias into the equation, otherwise it's just pure randomness and Fred Hoyle's argument about 747s flying out of black holes becomes mathematically valid. Proponents of evolution maintain the bias is environmental factors affecting survivability, so surviving antagonistic environments is the reason evolution occurs.
        • Having a cause does not imply a rationale

          You are making a mistake with the language.
  • @ Denise Amrich

    "What if we could encode our DNA to lose or gain weight or height, or change our hair color? …. "

    These eugenic applications have nothing to do with the subject of DNA data encoding. This is the entirely different subject of DNA splicing and codon injection, and we can already theoretically do that. The limiting factor is not so much the technology, but knowing the proper gene locus and the appropriate viral vector to carry the genetic payload to the appropriate target. How is it that you think GMOs are produced?
  • Alzheimer's and memories

    Will it be able to store fresh memories and able to read it direct from our minds and so be helpful to solve problems/disease like Alzheimer's ?

    Imagine if we are able to access our memories and store it in DNA!!! Than we'll be capable to see in the television memories from our childhood
    Mauricio Hollo (Dops)
    • Just think of the benefits for the legal profession..

      Copyright lawsuits forever...
  • Using DNA instead of DVDs to store data

    luckily, whoever designed us humans were not lawyers. otherwise, they could have embedded in our dna various watermarks, copyright notices, and other limiting codes that could have stunted our intellectual growth. am wondering if we will ever find out or understand the underpinning/theoretical basis of our existence ...
  • mind bottling!

    blades of fury. like when your mind is trapped in a bottle.
  • But is that fair use?

    Oddly enough they may not have had the rights to the data they encoded:
  • Mixing cabage and sausage...

    This article starts very interesting, but then wanders off to sunset of SF speculations.
    The fact, that DNA is a capable storage is interesting. I'd like to have more on storing and extracting, technology, access etc.

    Reencoding our own DNA is something completely different. You can do that today, if you know WHAT to change and how it interacts with the rest.