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- DNA Storage Advance: Entire Genetics Textbook Encoded In Less Than One
Trillionth Of A Gram
Scientists have found a way to store an entire
textbook in the code of DNA.Scientists have
found a way to store an entire textbook in the
code of DNA.
Scientists have found a way to store an entire textbook in the code of
DNA. By John Bohannon
When it comes to storing information, hard drives don't hold a candle to
DNA. Our genetic code packs billions of gigabytes into a single gram. A mere
milligram of the molecule could encode the complete text of every book in
the Library of Congress and have plenty of room to spare. All of this has
been mostly theoretical—until now. In a new study, researchers stored an
entire genetics textbook in less than a picogram of DNA—one trillionth of a gram
—an advance that could revolutionize our ability to save data.
A few teams have tried to write data into the genomes of living cells. But
the approach has a couple of disadvantages. First, cells die—not a good
way to lose your term paper. They also replicate, introducing new mutations
over time that can change the data.
To get around these problems, a team led by George Church, a synthetic
biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, created a DNA
information-archiving system that uses no cells at all. Instead, an inkjet printer embeds
short fragments of chemically synthesized DNA onto the surface of a tiny
glass chip. To encode a digital file, researchers divide it into tiny blocks of
data and convert these data not into the 1s and 0s of typical digital
storage media, but rather into DNA’s four-letter alphabet of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts.
Each DNA fragment also contains a digital "barcode" that records its
location in the original file. Reading the data requires a DNA sequencer and a
computer to reassemble all of the fragments in order and convert them back
into digital format. The computer also corrects for errors; each block of
data is replicated thousands of times so that any chance glitch can be
identified and fixed by comparing it to the other copies.
To demonstrate its system in action, the team used the DNA chips to encode
a genetics book co-authored by Church. It worked. After converting the
book into DNA and translating it back into digital form, the team’s system had
a raw error rate of only two errors per million bits, amounting to a few
single-letter typos. That is on par with DVDs and far better than magnetic
hard drives. And because of their tiny size, DNA chips are now the storage
medium with the highest known information density, the researchers report
online today in Science.
Don’t replace your flash drive with genetic material just yet, however.
The cost of the DNA sequencer and other instruments "currently makes this
impractical for general use," says Daniel Gibson, a synthetic biologist at the
J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, "but the field is moving
fast and the technology will soon be cheaper, faster, and smaller." Gibson
led the team that created the first completely synthetic genome, which
included a "watermark" of extra data encoded into the DNA. The researchers used
a three-letter coding system that is less efficient than the Church team's
but has built-in safeguards to prevent living cells from translating the
DNA into proteins. "If DNA is going to be used for this purpose, and outside
a laboratory setting, then you would want to use DNA sequence that is
least likely to be expressed in the environment," he says. Church disagrees.
Unless someone deliberately "subverts" his DNA data-archiving system, he sees
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