Deoxyribonucleic Acid or DNA for short is the genetic ‘cook book’ that codes for who you are as an individual. Since its initial isolation by Friedrich Miescher in 1869, hypotheses about the structure and function of DNA have evolved. It wasn’t until 1953 that it was correctly modeled as a double-helix structure by Francis Crick and James Watson; winning them a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Since then, our understanding of DNA has done nothing but grow with advancements in areas of genetic splicing such as with CRISPR and improvements in ideas around gene therapy. But what about using DNA for more than just living organisms? What if we start incorporating it into our technology?
DNA, as mentioned, is a double-helix strand of genetic information comprised of amino acids adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T) and cytosine (C). The orientation of these acids make up larger structures called genes which determines almost all of the characteristics that make up who you are. There are genes for blonde hair, for blue eyes but also for the genetic illness like cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease. The genes for particular traits are isolated to structures called chromosomes, to which there are 23 pairs. All of the genetic information is stored in the nucleus of the cell and only becomes visible under a microscope during cell division and replication. Weirdly enough, if all of the DNA was unwound it would stretch to approximately 2 metres long. Now that’s a lot of information to be storing at a microscopic level. What if we were able to use this information storage technique for current computing systems?
A couple of years ago, scientists developed a system that allowed for an image to be converted into a DNA strand and then back into an image. The simplest explanation is that an image on a computer screen is but a visual representation of a specific layout of one’s and zero’s. The orientation of one’s and zero’s was converted into the particular orientation of synthetic amino acids to make a DNA strand and was then converted back to the original image without errors. Recently, the content of synthetic DNA has increased with scientists being able to store a 1895 French film, a gift card and some other data files into DNA and back without errors. Sounds more complicated but it really isn’t; it’s just more one’s and zero’s.
There are a couple of advantages to using this method for the storage of information. One of them being size because apparently that matters. A single gram of synthetic DNA can store approximately 215,000 times more information than that of a 1 terabyte hard drive. Another perk of this method is that the DNA doesn’t degrade or become worn over time like actual hard drives. Over time it does eventually start to ‘decay’ but, using prehistoric DNA as an example, DNA can stay intact for tens of thousands of years. The advancements in this area could lead to even more information being stored as the process becomes more efficient. You could have a USB that has around a million gigabytes of space available for data storage. Though this technology is amazing, it is probably going to be at least a decade’s wait until we’re able to purchase such a device for personal use. Something to look forward to.