Why storing data in DNA is better than in hard drives

New error-correcting DNA sequencing and other improvements could signal the writing on the wall for hard drives.

dna data storage lead image
Philipp Stössel/ETH Zurich

Data can be stored in DNA. In fact, organic DNA can hold massive amounts of data, and it can last a long time. However, one of the main problems with it as a storage medium is that it's been unreliable.

But that might be about to change. Scientists are beginning to get a handle on error correction and longevity issues.

DNA as network storage

Scientists think DNA might be a solution for the degrading data storage of the future. They think that magnetic storage, of the kind found in hard drives, microfilm, or flash memory, will not last forever, and possibly not as long even as yellowing bits of paper—the oldest known paper document in the West dates from the 11th century.

Issues include standards formats, continually upgrading connections like ports, and fragility.

Our heavy use of electronic storage media has historians worried that our knowledge might not survive.

Indeed, I for one am not sure my legacy will survive. Who remembers Zip drive backups? That's what I used for backups of my early digital photographs. I've still got the media somewhere—maybe. I certainly don't have the drive anymore, though.

DNA lasts

DNA as a carrier for data, and as an alternative to network storage, is not such a bizarre idea. Just ask the scientists who analyzed a homo sapien femur discovered next to a Siberian river in 2008. The bone was from a man who died 45,000 years before. And it was the 45,000-year-old DNA found within that confirmed that result.


The main problem with DNA as a data storage mechanism, though, is that it has not been very reliable when it's been tried.

"Gaps and false information" in the encoded data arise through "chemical degradation and mistakes in DNA sequencing," and have plagued the tests, according to Angelika Jacobs, who has written about new experiments conducted by ETH Zurich university on the university's website.

The new experiments show promise. Unlike previous attempts, they first encapsulate the DNA in silica, also known as glass, and then use an algorithm to correct errors in the data.

Eureka moment

The Eureka moment derives from the fact that DNA changes significantly, and adversely as it reacts with the environment. And one of the problems with early attempts at using DNA to store data was that the DNA experimented with became corrupted over time.

However, DNA stored in bones, like the 45,000-year-old aforementioned example, does not. A protective fossil-like storage mechanism could be the answer, the researchers believed. Hence the silica wrap.

"Similar to these bones, we wanted to protect the information-bearing DNA with a synthetic 'fossil' shell," ETH Zurich lead scientist Robert Grass told Jacobs.

Synthetic fossils

The synthetic fossils were subjected to heat in order to replicate chemical degredation, and the researchers were still able to decode the DNA. It worked, although the test-accelerated time period was only a month.

Any errors were corrected through Reed-Solomon codes. These are non-binary cyclic error-correcting codes, as are used in QR Codes, and ironically, CDs and DVD discs.

One gram of DNA can store the equivalent of 14,000 Blu-ray discs, says Victoria Woolaston, writing about the DNA data storage in Mailonline.

So add space savings to the potential for a million years, or more of storage and hard drive makers should be petrified.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.