It all started with two men in a pub. Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman, both scientists from the European Bioinformatics Institute, were drinking beer and discussing a problem.
Their institute manages a huge database of genetic information: thousands and thousands of genes from humans and corn and pufferfish. That data — and all the hard drives and the electricity used to power them — is getting pretty expensive.
"The data we're being asked to be guardians of is growing exponentially," Goldman says. "But our budgets are not growing exponentially."
It's a problem faced by many large companies with expanding archives. Luckily, the solution was right in front of the researchers — they worked with it every day.
"We realized that DNA itself is a really efficient way of storing information," Goldman says...
...The challenge before Goldman and his colleagues was to make DNA store a digital file instead of genetic information.
"So over a second beer, we started to write on napkins and sketch out some details of how that might be made to work," Goldman says.
They started with a text file of one of Shakespeare's sonnets. In the computer's most basic language, it existed as a series of zeroes and ones. With a simple cipher, the scientists translated these zeroes and ones into the letters of DNA.
And then they did the same for the rest of Shakespeare's sonnets, an audio clip of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and a picture of their office. They sent that code off to Agilent Technologies, a biotech company. Agilent synthesized the DNA and mailed it back to Goldman...To read the sonnets, they simply sequenced the DNA and ran their cipher backward. All the files were 100 percent intact and accurate.
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Researchers aren't using DNA from any living organism, or one that was once alive; instead, they are synthesizing it.
"We’re using DNA here as a chemical molecule of storage. It just happens to be the same molecule that is used in our bodies as well," said Ewan Birney, senior author of the study and geneticist at the United Kingdom's European Bioinformatics Institute, at a press briefing Tuesday.
As long as the DNA is kept cold, dry and dark, it will last for a long time. Consider that scientists can sequence DNA from woolly mammoths tens of thousands of years old that’s preserved by chance.
“There must be some point in time when it’s cheaper to store information for that length of time as DNA than as something that requires electricity or some other maintenance cost to keep it around,” Birney said.
Birney and colleagues did the math, and found that although DNA storage is expensive, it's more cost-effective than other methods if you want to preserve a digital file for somewhere between 600 and 5,000 years. However, the scientists say the synthesis cost will probably come down in the next decade, so DNA storage could even work for ensuring your grandchildren can see your wedding photos.
"Anything that you want to store we could store," Birney said. "Really, the only limit is the expense."
Study collaborators at Agilent Technologies provided DNA synthesis free of charge for the Nature paper, but commercial rates for DNA synthesis are probably between $10,000 and $30,000, researchers said.
The technique, researchers said, could even encode a zettabyte’s worth of data. That's enough to encompass the total amount of digital information that currently exists on Earth, which would be "breathtakingly expensive" right now, Birney said.
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