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Tired of CDs? Try DNA!

AFP
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Dr Nick Goldman examining synthesized DNA, a speck of which can hold mountains of data that can be stored, potentially for thousands of years.photo: AFP
Dr Nick Goldman examining synthesized DNA, a speck of which can hold mountains of data that can be stored, potentially for thousands of years.photo: AFP

Scientists in Britain on Wednesday announced a breakthrough in the quest to turn DNA into a revolutionary form of data storage.

A speck of man-made DNA can hold mountains of data that can be freeze-dried, shipped and stored, potentially for thousands of years, they said.

The contents are “read” by sequencing the DNA — as is routinely done today, in genetic fingerprinting and so on — and turning it back into computer code.

“We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from bones of woolly mammoths, which date back tens of thousands of years, and make sense of it,” said Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI).

“It's also incredibly small, dense and does not need any power for storage, so shipping and keeping it is easy.”

To prove their concept, the team encoded an MP3 recording of Martin Luther King's “I Have A Dream” speech; a digital photo of their lab; a PDF of the landmark study in 1953 that described the structure of DNA; a file of all of Shakespeare's sonnets; and a document that describes the data storage technique.

“The only limit is the cost,” said co-author Ewan Birney. But on current trends, sequencing costs could fall by a factor of 20 within a decade, making DNA storage economically feasible for timeframes of less than 50 years, the authors claim.AFP


The basics

  • DNA is a long, coiled molecular “ladder” comprising four chemical rungs, adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, which team up in pairs. C teams up with G, and T teams up with A.

  • Data is taken in the form of zeros and 1s in computing's binary code, and transcribing it into “Base-3” code, which uses zeros, 1s and 2s.
  • The data is transcribed for a second time into DNA code, which is based on the A, C, G and T. A block of five letters is used for a single binary digit.

  • The letters are then turned into molecules, using lab-dish chemicals.



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