Scientists have discovered a way of storing vast quantities of information for up to 2,000 years on strands of DNA.
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich announced earlier this month that they pioneered a process of creating a fossilized form of data storage by encapsulating strands of DNA in glass. The results of the experiment were published in the journal Angewandte Chemie in February.
The breakthrough could lead to the creation of digital archives, storing everything from ancient texts to Wikipedia pages in DNA form that could survive for hundreds of thousands of years without the loss of any data. By comparison, today’s most powerful hard drives hold about 6 terabytes of data and last for only decades.
“We will show how we can use modern chemical and information engineering tools for the safeguarding of actual digital information in the form of DNA,” the researchers said at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Boston on August 17.
Led by Robert Grass, researchers converted 83 kilobytes of text from the medieval Swiss Federal Charter of 1291 and the Methods of Archimedes from the 10th Century, into a code based on sequences of DNA’s four chemical building blocks.
“On a hard drive, we use zeros and ones to represent data, and in DNA we have four nucleotides, A, C, T and G,” Grass said.
The code was sent to a lab and transformed into synthetic strands of DNA.
The scientists heated the glass-encased strands to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for several weeks — the equivalent to storing DNA at 50 degrees Fahrenheit for 2,000 years — and then decoded the 83 kilobytes of data back to the original text using the Reed-Solomon codes, an error-correcting algorithm used for satellite communications.
Only by protecting the strands of DNA in glass and using an error-correcting code, is it possible to store data in DNA for significant amounts of time, Grass told PBS NewsHour.
“If you go back to medieval times in Europe, we had monks writing in books to transmit information for the future, and some of those books still exist,” Grass said. “Now, we save information on hard drives, which we wear out in a few decades.”
Despite DNA’s density and capacity to hold virtually limitless amounts of data, it is not rewritable and it cannot be reused, and it has no inherent filing system, meaning it’s impossible to isolate a single file of data from a strand of DNA.
“This is of course impractical,” Grass said, “so we are working on novel ways to select specific pieces of information written with DNA.”