It is well known that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) stores our genetic information. However, an increasing number of scientists and futurists are recognizing the potential of DNA to store non-genetic information.
DNA is found in almost every cell in the human body. It stores biological information, such as eye color, hair color and skin tone. The genetic data contained in DNA serves as a blueprint for each cell to perform its functions. So, DNA essentially ‘programs’ the human body.
DNA is made up of four base components: Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine (known as AGCT). From these four bases, DNA forms groups of three nucleotides (known as codons). A codon is the unit that gives our cells instructions on protein formation.
How to Store Non-Genetic Information in DNA
Our information technology infrastructure is based on the storage of information in bits (which are made up of two digits: 0s and 1s), whereas DNA information is stored in strings of four potential base units. For example:
DNA Sequence (AGTCATGAC)
So, to store non-genetic information in DNA, we must first translate binary data from bits to the four unit (AGCT) structure of DNA data.
While this is not difficult theoretically, it presents some complications in practice.
Converting Bits into DNA sequence.
Since DNA uses organic matter, DNA data storage will be far more efficient than our current data storage mechanisms. Data stored in molecular form will use only the bare minimum number of atoms necessary for storage.
Scientists have successfully stored data in synthetic DNA. Synthetic DNA is like real DNA, but is created from scratch by scientists. The data stored on synthetic DNA is kept in test tubes, and not attached to any living organisms.
Benefits of Synthetic DNA Data Storage
There are several benefits of synthetic DNA data storage. DNA lasts for thousands of years, whereas data in traditional hard drives can get corrupted or damaged within 30 years.
Due to the efficiency of DNA storage, the storage capacity of DNA is massive: a single gram of synthetic DNA can store over 215 petabytes of data!
Additionally, DNA can be copied endlessly for free.
Drawbacks of Synthetic DNA Data Storage
The major drawbacks of synthetic DNA storage include prohibitive costs and access time. While it currently costs a lot to store data in DNA form, this cost can be expected to drop precipitously as the technology evolves. It currently takes hours to input and retrieve data from DNA, rendering it impractical for most real-time applications. Scientists are working on reducing this access time.
Multiple efforts are underway to explore the potential of DNA to store cryptographic keys and other private information. One idea is to bury sensitive information in the DNA, so that it is sufficiently well hidden that it need not be encrypted. This method is known as ‘DNA Steganography’. The startup Carverr is pursuing one implementation of this idea by attempting to store Bitcoin passwords (known as private keys) in DNA.
The financial and engineering barriers to viable storage of non-genetic data in DNA are formidable and this technology is in its infancy. Overcoming these barriers would bring about a revolution in data storage and security, allowing massive amounts of data to be stored securely in just a gram of matter. It would also open up futuristic, new organic computing use cases, including Brain-Computer Interfaces.