DNA Now Stands For Data And Knowledge Accumulation

Technology frequently looks at nature to make improvements in efficiency, and we may be nearing a new breakthrough in copying how nature stores data. Maybe some day your thumb drive will be your actual thumb. The entire works of Shakespeare could be stored in an infinite number of monkeys. DNA could become a data storage mechanism! With all the sensationalism surrounding this frontier, it seems like a dose of reality is in order.

The Potential for Greatness

The human genome, with 3 billion base pairs can store up to 750MB of data. In reality every cell has two sets of chromosomes, so nearly every human cell has 1.5GB of data shoved inside. You could pack 165 billion cells into the volume of a microSD card, which equates to 165 exobytes, and that’s if you keep all the overhead of the rest of the cell and not just the DNA. That’s without any kind of optimizing for data storage, too.

This kind of data density is far beyond our current digital storage capabilities. Storing nearly infinite data onto extremely small cells could change everything. Beyond the volume, there’s also the promise of longevity and replication, maintaining a permanent record that can’t get lost and is easily transferred (like medical records), and even an element of subterfuge or data transportation, as well as the ability to design self-replicating machines whose purpose is to disseminate information broadly.

So, where is the state of the art in DNA data storage? There’s plenty of promise, but does it actually work?

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Synthetic Biology Creates Living Computers

Most people have at least a fuzzy idea of what DNA is. Ask about RNA, though, and unless you are talking to a biologist, you are likely to get even more handwaving. We hackers might have to reread our biology text books, though, since researchers have built logic gates using RNA.

Sometimes we read these university press releases and realize that the result isn’t very practical. But in this case, the Arizona State University study shows how AND, OR, and NOT gates are possible and shows practical applications with four-input AND gates and six-input OR gates using living cells. The key is a construct known as an RNA toehold switch (see video below). Although this was worked out in 2012, this recent study shows how to apply it practically.

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