A primer on DNA data storage and its potential uses – TechTarget

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The history of storage technology has been a continuous struggle to encode more information in smaller spaces at lower cost. Once information storage became digital, the endeavor centered on creating smaller magnetic, optical and silicon structures to encode a bit of information. While technology continues to squeeze more bits onto a chip or disk, encoding data in the tightly wound double-helix of DNA promises far higher densities.
The pitch of 10 DNA base pairs is 3.4 nanometers long with a 2 nm diameter. Each base pair is a combination of two nucleotides: adenine (A) and thymine (T), or cytosine (C) with guanine (G), according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. If each pair represented a bit, for example AT or TA as zero and CG or GC as one, a DNA strand could conceivably hold 10 bits per 6.8 square nm. In other words, DNA information density is 1.47 terabit/mm2 or 950 terabit/in2, or more than 800 times the density of HDDs.
When one considers that there are 3 billion base pairs in a microscopic human genome tightly wound in each cell, the DNA data storage opportunities are vast.
Unfortunately, our back-of-the-envelope calculation vastly oversimplifies DNA storage processes. Today’s technology that we use to synthesize, store and sequence DNA is fraught with errors. It requires any DNA data storage system to have vast amounts of redundancy and use sophisticated data coding.
Nonetheless, the explosive growth in data generation will require revolutionary techniques for storage, particularly for archival purposes. Gartner has high expectations for DNA storage, noting that “all of human knowledge could be stored in a small amount of synthetic DNA.” The organization claimed that 30% of “digital businesses” will conduct DNA data storage trials by 2024. Since the DNA can be preserved indefinitely, Gartner sees archival storage of music, video and statistical data as potential applications for DNA storage.
DNA data storage and retrieval is a six-step process that converts a digital bitstream into a sequence of base pairs. It is conceptually similar to encoding bits as a series of pits and lands on an optical disk.
Steps to complete this process include the following:
DNA data storage is rapidly headed from the lab to production. However, because the synthesis and sequencing processes are slow compared to electronic information processing, the only feasible application is archival storage. For example, it currently takes hours to write a few gigabytes of data, although an experimental parallel processing technique claims to reach a terabyte per day.
DNA storage has a tolerance for high error rates. Unlike in pharmaceutical uses where small errors in the DNA sequence can have profound effects, the ability to employ sophisticated redundancy and encoding algorithms means storage systems can maintain full data fidelity with error rates of 10% or higher in the synthesis and sequencing processes.
The video streaming industry produced a compelling example of the emerging use of DNA for archival data storage. Twist Bioscience recently worked with Netflix to demonstrate the feasibility of DNA for video preservation. Researchers at ETH Zurich encoded the first episode of the Netflix series Biohackers into DNA nucleotides, which it then synthesized into DNA strands using Twist Bioscience’s silicon platform. Raw, uncompressed 4K video runs about 250 MBps, which translates to 750 GB for a 50-minute episode. It’s an impressive demonstration of DNA’s potential as an archival medium.
Twist Bioscience is a leader in DNA data storage and recently presented its technology at the Stanford Compression Workshop 2021. Twist Bioscience, Illumina, Microsoft and Western Digital recently formed the DNA Data Storage Alliance to promote the technology and develop an industry roadmap, use cases and educational materials. Other members include:
There are several other significant companies — including Evonetix, Helixworks, Kilobaser and Synthomics — that pioneer technologies such as DNA synthesis and storage material. This work will facilitate DNA data storage and other therapeutic applications.
DNA data storage is far closer to commercial reality than it is to science fiction. Data storage professionals responsible for archive strategies should follow developments in the field and factor DNA technology into roadmaps alongside evolutions in LTO tape and other archival storage media.
An overview of Microsoft Project Silica and its archive use
Part of: Track outside-the-box storage technologies
DNA storage isn’t just a futuristic concept — many companies are actively involved in its development and promotion. There’s a major use case in data archiving.
Microsoft’s Project Silica stores data in silica glass, similar to the crystals in ‘Superman’ films. In fact, ‘Superman’ already played a major role in the forward-looking project.
The latest work in holographic storage development approaches its uses in a different way. Take a deep dive into the possibilities and potential of this 3D storage.
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