DNA Data: The Pros and Cons

The most recent reports released by scientists in California and Cambridge have opened up the eyes of many to the suggestion that storing data on the likes of discs, mp3 devices, hard drives and USB pens may in the not so distant future become a thing of the past!
Scientists at the Agilent Technologies inc. in California recently conducted an experiment whereby they embedded encoded information into a custom-made, synthetic string of DNA to see its storage capabilities. In this strand of DNA, Agilent scientists encoded an mp3 track Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, a jpeg photo, a PDF File version of Watson and Crick’s DNA Research Paper from 1953, and a text file containing all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets.

That strand of DNA was then couriered straight to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Cambridge who, using their own equipment, ‘read’ and examined the DNA strand, and then proceeded to reconstruct the files from the DNA back into their established formats.

The extraction of the data at the EMBL was done without any digital errors and there were no such errors either whilst the specimen was in transit between the two laboratories.

All sounds great! But before anyone starts eagerly awaiting the day where a cupful of DNA will replace the DVD’s on our shelves, let’s see what DNA does in fact offer on closer inspection.

On physical appearance, according to Agilent scientist Emily Leproust: – “The result looks like a tiny piece of dust”. All of which is contained in a tiny, air-tight cup. In terms of bulk, everyone will agree that tiny cup would take precedence for storage over that cluttered collection of DVD’s, games, computer drives and other storage devices we have littered around the house. In fact, if reports are to be believed, one strand of DNA could have the potential to store every single TV episode and film ever made in the world!
In terms of storage capacity, it is unmatched then, if reports are to be believed! But, what exactly does the storage and maintenance of DNA entail to the average person?

Well for a start, journalists were invited to speak to Dr Ewan Birney, a team-member on the project working for the European Bioinformatics institute (EBI), and he explained that one of the beauties of DNA storage was that it required no electricity to remain maintained. Dr Birney said: – “One of the great properties of DNA storage is that you don’t need any electricity to store it”.

“If you keep it cold, dry and dark – DNA can last for a very long time. We know that because we routinely sequence woolly mammoth DNA that is kept by chance in these sort of conditions”. This is something that DNA quite clearly has over the likes of computer hard-drives and Compact disks which not only have a more limited storage, but require maintenance where DNA doesn’t.

In theory then, it isn’t far from reality to be able to store you’re entire multimedia collection in one cupful of DNA saving a huge amount of physical space, and keep it in the freezer to maintain it! The reality, however, is rather different.

Just picture it, any member of the public who has just gone to their freezer and decides to take out that cup of DNA conveniently holding all the entertainment and files you need. How on earth do you go about accessing it?

This is something that Agilent scientists were quizzed about and did not beat about the bush when they said that this was the current flaw with DNA at this time.

The current technology that is used to ‘read’, decode and/or insert data into DNA is not only part of an extremely complex process, but is, as scientists admit, also a very slow process that eats up millions of pounds by the minute due to the incredibly precise and complex technology required to power it.

To make sure this kind of technology is accessible to the general public, should DNA remain a potential candidate when it comes to solving the problems of bulky storage for multimedia, would be yet another mammoth task that these scientists will have to consider right now if they are, as they claim in their trials of DNA storage, on the verge of unlocking the power to be able to use DNA on a larger scale.

If these reports and experiments are the first step toward solving the constant challenge of affordable and practical storage, then necessary research into making this technology, in the years to come, a plausible concept for the general public and mass usage is the second step. Scientists do in fact claim that such technology could be possible in the next decade or two.
An extremely exciting prospect on the horizon, but it looks like we’ll have to continue the arduous task of sorting out all those DVD cases and relying on our broadband connection speed and iTunes for a few more years to come!

BY: Robert Pritchard

Information sourced from the following links:-
• http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21145163
• http://news.sky.com/story/1041917/huge-amounts-of-data-can-be-stored-in-dna