17 Aug 2012

Is DNA the future of large-scale digital storage?

A group of US scientists have encoded a 53,000-word e-book – including 11 images and a computer program – entirely in DNA. It means DNA could become a future option for storing large amounts of data.

This is the largest amount of data stored artificially using chemically synthesised deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA.

The book, program and images had to be converted to a sequence of 5.27 million zeroes and ones, which ended up as 54,898 strands of nucleotides – the main component of DNA.

After the information was encoded, drops of DNA were attached to a solid surface known as a microarray chip. These chips were kept at four degrees Celsius for three months before being dissolved and sequenced to re-read the data.

Each copy of each strand was sequenced up to 3,000 times to check the reliability of the information. There were only 10 read errors – and multiple copies of each block of data were synthesised as part of the project to help correct this.


The book can be decoded using DNA sequencing techniques commonly available in university-level science laboratories and hospitals.

The three researchers from Harvard Medical School stated in an article published in Science that “DNA is among the most dense and stable information media known”. The biological molecules that make up DNA will always be able to be read without becoming obsolete.

The slow and costly nature of DNA sequencing is not suitable for data which has to be accessed and changed repeatedly, but this could be an effective long-term storage option for archiving large amounts of information.

Scientists estimate that one gram of DNA can store up to 455 billion gigabytes of data: more than 100 billion DVDs.

But the Harvard project did not involve any living organisms, which would have introduced a myriad of complex factors and risks, so carrying around an armful of data – literally – is still some way from becoming a reality.