George Church is a professor of genetics at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and also co-author of the book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA. With a title like that, it’s only fitting that the book was used to break the record that it recently did – Church led a team that encoded 70 billion html copies of the book in DNA. That’s 1,000 times more data than the previous record.
Using next-generation sequencing technology, Church’s team successfully stored the text, images and formatting of the book onto "standalone DNA" obtained from commercial DNA microchips. This was achieved by assigning the four DNA nucleobases the values of the 1s and 0s in the existing html binary code – the adenine and cytosine nucleobases represented 0, while guanine and thymine stood in for 1.
The density at which the data was stored is truly impressive, coming in at 5.5 petabits (one million gigabits) per cubic millimeter. At that rate, according to research partner Sriram Kosuri, the entire amount of digital data created worldwide in one year could theoretically be stored on just four grams of DNA.
In previous experiments, scientists have had success storing much smaller amounts of data on DNA obtained from living organisms. Church believes that such an approach wouldn’t work for practical use, however. “In an organism, your message is a tiny fraction of the whole cell, so there's a lot of wasted space,” he said. “But more importantly, almost as soon as a DNA goes into a cell, if that DNA doesn't earn its keep, if it isn't evolutionarily advantageous, the cell will start mutating it, and eventually the cell will completely delete it.”
While other experimental methods of data storage require very cold temperatures or large amounts of energy, DNA remains stable at room temperature, and stays intact for hundreds of thousands of years. It does take more time to read and write DNA-stored data, however, so Church suggests that it would be best suited to archiving large amounts of information, and not for day-to-day use.
A paper on the project was recently published in the journal Science. More details are available in the video below.