The time has come to store digital information in DNA molecules by Suf Alkhaldi

Storing digital in DNA molecules - Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Storing digital information  in DNA molecules – Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

I am fascinated by biology and computer science. Both fields inspire me and make me in search for more evidence that these two fields are connected.  When I was in graduate school, I studied DNA structure in detail: the nucleic acid bases, the distance between the bases, and how nucleic acids are connected with each other.  I once read a scientific paper where researchers exposed DNA fragments to high speed electrical current and took pictures of the DNA molecule to study the movement of the DNA dragging force, generating data which can help us in car accidents. When I finished reading the paper, I was amazed. How on earth did these researchers decide to connect the two fields? Most outstanding discoveries in science, as I discovered, were an extrapolation of scientific concepts brought from another field.  When I read the biography of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson,  Jobs used to go to kitchen cookware stores to decide on the design of the Mac.

Years ago, talking to a graduate student and telling him that DNA can be extracted from dead tissues thousands of years old, I suggested that maybe we can store information in this molecule which is not related to any biological functions. We could keep it for many years — much longer than a book.

Genomic DNA sequencing-Image courtesy of cooldesign at
Genomic DNA sequencing-Image courtesy of cool design at

It is really amazing that just one drop of blood (around 1/2 a milliliter)  has enough DNA to be used to extract all the information of our make up genes – around 30,000 genes.  If we want to write the information of these genes in a book or a desk digitally, it will be as big as Wikipedia which is around 2 terabytes.  How can we store so much information in a very tiny space?  Maybe, we all need to use  DNA as a vehicle to store digital information.

Although the price of storing digital information has dropped drastically since the move from an analog to a digital storage system, optical magnetic devices — computer hard drives — are not reliable for long-term data storage. The devices can stay intact around 50 years. In order to develop a technology which can stay longer than 50 years, we need a lot of research and testing, usually accompanied by high costs.  DNA is the only molecule that can store information for a very long time.  Recently,  300,000 year-old human and bear mitochondrial DNA were sequenced, indicating that DNA molecules can stay for a very long time.

Storing digital data in DNA sequence
Storing digital data in DNA sequence

Currently, DNA can be used as a coding language for forensics, product tagging, and DNA computing. DNA is considered a very reliable method to store information. To store digital information in a DNA strand, the letters of Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), Thymine (T) can be used and arranged in a certain way to store the information using computer algorithms .  The number of A G C T bases and the repeats of them (after sequencing them in a machine)  will be easily translated to digital information, using  simple computer algorithms- please see the figure to the right.

Recent research from  Zurich, Switzerland proved that DNA can be used to store digital information other than genes with error-free outcomes.  The researchers used 150 bp of DNA strands (storing digital information) attached to a glass-matrix to prevent them from being rearranged and to keep them error-free for a long time.  In fact, researchers suggested that we can store digital information in a Global Seed Vault from 400-1000 years. This number might even go as high as one million years.

Imagine that a small volume of DNA has the ability to store so much information for a long time which none of these magnetic devices can.  This technology will save us a lot of space, electricity, and cost.  Perhaps, the National Archive  has to start looking at this technology as a means to store information.

This blog is usually published every week on Saturday before 10:00 pm. US Eastern time. Thank you for reading my blog. I would love to hear from you.

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