Technology has developed at lightning speed. Just 10 years ago, compact discs were the top device for data storage, phasing out floppy disks. Now the contents of multiple CDs, or even an entire hard drive of documents, can be stored on a mere two-inch flash drive. As storage capacities continue to grow, where will we store our data next?
Harvard Medical School has released a report in Nature about DNA’s potential as a massive storage device. One of the first motion pictures from 1878 of a horse galloping has just been encoded into the DNA of a cell, where it can be retrieved and multiplied indefinitely. Scientists have also translated all of Shakespeare’s sonnets into DNA.
The scientists assigned each pixel in the black and white movie a DNA code based on the shade of gray until they had a sequence of DNA molecules representing the entire film. Then they used gene editing to put the sequence into the genome of common gut bacteria, E. coli. The bacteria thrived and multiplied, and the movie was preserved intact with each new generation.
Fifty years ago, renowned physicist Richard Feynman believed that DNA could be used for storage in this way, but this was before the molecular biology revolution and before DNA could be sequenced and edited. In 1994, a mathematician at USC stored data in DNA and used it to solve a math problem.
DNA can store millions of times more data than a compact disc. Technology we use to store data keeps becoming obsolete, but DNA will always be around. One day, scientists believe it may be possible to program bacteria to record what cells are doing, so when sickness occurs, the doctors could play back the record, as a black box in an airplane. People don’t realize how small DNA molecules are and how much information they can hold.
Kolata, Gina. “Who Needs Hard Drives? Scientists Store Film Clip in DNA.” Science. The New York Times, 12 Jul 2017. Web. 13 Jul 2017.