DNA Storage Moves Closer to Realization

Do you know how many gigabytes are in an exabyte? Probably not because it’s likely you’ve never even heard of an exabyte. That said, there was a time when a gigabyte was a distant dream. We are now on the exabyte horizon. Oh, by the way, if you’re ever asked this question, 1 exatabyte = 1,073,741,824 gigabytes. That’s a billion gigabytes or 1,048,576 terabytes, which, to put it mildly, is quite a bit of storage. Here is a graphical display from Ionos featuring the exabyte.

To put this in a more practical perspective, you would need 400 terabytes to store all the books ever written on Earth, and 400TB is only .0004 of an exabyte.

Data storage centers can be the size of small towns. Here is one of the biggest, the China Mobile Data Center. Little information on this center exists but it is believed to store exabytes of data.

We have a little more information on the NSA’s data center in Utah.

Although no official storage capacity is given, experts estimate it could hold between 3 and 12 exabytes of data. In other words, if you need to store exabytes of data, you need space and billions of dollars for construction and equipment. The storage of the entire world with all the data from every government, all the data from private companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, and every other company large and small amounts to around 6800 exabytes.

All of the preceding information is necessary to understand DNA storage. Now, when I tell you DNA storage will allow you to put one exabyte of data on a one inch (2.5cm) cube, you will understand how incredible such storage can be. So when Microsoft announced that it had moved a step closer to this possibility, people took notice,

But how is this possible? How can you store so much data in such a small space and how can you store anything on a DNA molecule? Well, that’s not easy to explain in simple terms, but I’ll do my best. Traditional silicon storage uses combinations of ones and zeros to express physical reality in a digital form. For example, the digital representation of the letters that make up my name, Steve, is 01110011 01110100 01100101 01110110 01100101. DNA is an information storage molecule. The expression of the data it stores creates all the characteristics that make you a human. In many ways, you are the expression of a computer program. To store this data, DNA uses four chemical bases represented by the letters A, G, C, and T. Now, imagine how much storage you could get if you could combine ones and zeros storage with the four storage parameters of DNA. Here is an image from the recent Microsoft/University of Washington report that shows how this is done. I modified it for explanatory purposes.

As you might expect, the most difficult part of the process is in the writing of digitally based code into a chemical code that can be stored in the DNA molecule. At current speeds, writing would take too long to have any practical uses.

But, with such a great potential, no one is ready to give up on research in this area. It’s not only the small storage area that is attractive but the durability of the DNA molecule. DNA can survive for thousands of years while modern storage devices are limited to decades at best. Keeping DNA cool can even increase storage times. In other words, an entire data center that takes up millions of square meters could, possibly, be reduced to the size of a refrigerator.

But before you go out and invest in refrigerators, keep in mind that only the initial steps in the realization of DNA storage have been taken. On the other hand, the experiments by Microsoft and the University of Washington serve as a proof of concept: That is, such storage is shown to be possible. It is no longer in the realm of science fiction. In fact, 40 companies and educational institutions have formed something called the ‘DNA Data Storage Alliance’, to work towards this end.

Yes, there are probably going to be unforeseen problems. When it comes to technology, it’s very hard to guess how long it will be before real DNA storage becomes the norm. There is also the possibility that quantum storage devices will be developed before DNA storage becomes a reality. But, for the moment, quantum computers are only good for running algorithms at high speeds and not storing data. The unpredictability that comes with the quantum world prevents storage except by traditional digital methods. If DNA storage is realized, it could be improved over time to store even more data in even smaller spaces. Storage on DNA may only be limited by Planck’s constant, which could mean that all of the world’s data could be stored on a device the size of a sugar cube. Again, this is only an idea that people are working towards, but that’s how the future always begins.

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