The world has an insatiable appetite and relentlessly growing need for more electronic memory. Those gazillions of bits and bytes created daily and being propelled forward at an ever-increasing rate need to keep on going somewhere for storage, search and retrieval. Some scientists are now looking at radically different systems that utilize DNA and highly specialized natural and synthetic substances called polymers for this.
The latest developments on these efforts, providing a new spin on the old adage “no small feat”, were reported on BusinessInsider.com in an article entitled The Future of Data Storage is in Tiny Strings of Molecules 60,000 Times Thinner Than a Strand of Hair, by Dave Gershgorn of Popular Science (where this piece was first published), posted on June 10, 2015. I will sum this up, annotate and pose a few, well, small questions.
Upon a strand of polymer, approximately 60,000 times smaller than a single strand of hair, researchers at France’s Institut Charles Sadron and Aix-Marseille Universite have been able to encode some binary data. Jean-Francois Lutz, the deputy director of Institut Charles Sadron, was one of the co-authors of a paper describing this entitled Design and Synthesis of Digitally Encoded Polymers That Can be Decoded and Erased that was published in the May 26, 2015 edition of Nature. Among many other things, only 10 grams of the polymer that Lutz has synthesized would be needed to store a zettabyte of data that, using today’s systems, would require 1,000 kilogram of cobalt alloy to manufacture comparable capacity with today’s hardware.
This new polymer is processed into a memory system by using a mass spectrometer, which is normally used in sequencing DNA. After two years of work on this research by Lutz, much more work on it remains ahead. Currently, it can only hold several bytes of info which he expects to scale up to kilobytes within five years. He views similar work on using DNA for storage as a “roadmap” for the anticipated progress of his own research.
Taking the lead on the content storage work with DNA is Harvard Medical School and Technicolor. Thus far in their work, researchers have encoded “10 megabytes to a DNA sequence”, and been able to decode a few hours later. Harvard Professor George Church, who is leading this effort, has previously printed “20 million copies of his book to DNA” consisting of a single drop of liquid. This accomplishment was first introduced on The Colbert Report on October, 4, 2012.* I highly recommend clicking-through to view this 5.5 minute interview and, likewise, reading Dr. Church’s remarkable book (which I have previously had the pleasure of reading in its brain-bending entirety), entitled Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (Basic Books, 2012). He also discussed his book in the video.
Harvard and Technicolor are examining whether and how DNA memory can be implemented for archiving “large quantities of media”. That is, since such technology can store petabytes within a single drop of liquid and last “100,000 years in the right conditions”, it might well be preferable to current storage technologies. The current constraint on DNA storage is the relative slowness in the data encoding process. However, at the current rate of progress, this might become commercially viable sometime in the future.
Lutz also believes his work on polymers will not be commercially viable for years but will nonetheless be better able as a mass storage medium than DNA in terms of its relative ease of fabrication and price.
My own questions are as follows:
- What are the technological, economic, cultural and regulatory implications of these systems that seem to promise truly unlimited storage at a nominal price?
- Since there is another branch of research that has been working on DNA computing for a number of years, where DNA is used for information processing, would it be advantageous to integrate this with DNA memory technology?
- Could such DNA storage be carried around by a person within them? That is, can such memory DNA be implanted into someone such that it carries around their own information while somehow being shielded against mingling with that person’s own DNA? Let’s say a drop of this memory DNA is placed within very safe and small chip, place under a person’s skin, and then scanned to add or read data. Might this be possible and, if so, would it serve any purpose that could not be accomplished by other means?
* Having nothing whatsoever to do with DNA or polymers, but having everything to do with Steven Colbert as he prepares to take over as the host of The Late Show in just a few months, please also see this hilarious YouTube video that went viral last week entitled The Colbeard.