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Is DNA the Solution for Permanent Data Storage?

New study uses “synthetic fossils” to store data for the ages

(Hank Morgan - Rainbow/Science Faction/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Nestled deep inside cell nuclei, DNA contains the instructions for life itself. But could the double helix help preserve more than genetic material for future generations? A group of Swiss scientists thinks so—they’ve figured out how to use DNA to store information for “nearly an eternity.”

Frustrated by the relatively short storage life of digital information—and inspired by fossils—the scientists turned to DNA as a potential means of storing data for long periods of time. The team decided to try protecting information-bearing DNA in a fossil-like shell they fashioned from tiny silica spheres.

After encoding two historical documents into DNA, they stored them in the nanospheres and conducted aging experiments to simulate the chemical changes that occur over hundreds of years of storage. When they decoded the DNA sequences and compared them to identical sequences stored in paper and polymer, they learned that their faux fossils were the most effective. The team also developed a special “back-up” algorithm to ensure that the preserved DNA could be read even in the presence of small errors.

“The original information could be recovered error free, even after treating the DNA in silica at 70 °C for one week,” noted the scientists. “This is thermally equivalent to storing information on DNA in central Europe for 2000 years.” Though the team is not the first to encode a book or document in DNA, it is the first to show that DNA encryption might be a durable way to store data for the long term.

Still, the team admits that it’s not sure just how the society of the future will be able to read the encrypted documents in thousands of years. “On the one hand, we are researchers, we simply provide the method by which to do this. On the other hand, we are interested in what this means and what kinds of possibilities it offers,” lead researcher Robert Grass told Swiss Public Broadcasting.

That leaves open one of the main questions of how we’ll preserve our digital history over the long term. First, the storage has to last for a long time—DNA solves that problem. But it also has to have a mechanism that will enable whoever comes across the stored data to read it. Translation: It's great to have options, but don’t expect to be able to convert your bookshelf to a DNA archive any time soon.

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