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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Are we ready for DNA-based computer memory?

First came floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs. And then came USB flash drives, memory cards. So what's next? Maybe DNA.

DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is a long string-like molecule that stores all the genetic instructions that a living organism needs to grow and to function.

As such, DNA is capable of storing vast amounts of information: theoretically, one gram can contain some 455 billion gigabytes —almost half a billion terabytes, the equivalent of over 100 billion DVDs.
Now, a team of Harvard and Johns Hopkins scientists was able to use DNA for the first time to encode the contents of an entire book, bringing theory into the realm of possibility.
The whole Internet in a thumbdrive
“[DNA in] a device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet," Harvard Medicine Professor George Church said.
In the August 16 issue of Science magazine, the research team lead by Church came out with a study showing that they were able to use DNA to encode 53,426 words, 11 images, and a computer program.  (See the study abstract here.)
The team successfully collected and compressed 5.27 megabits worth of data —about what you can find in a 3.5-inch floppy disk. This is 600 times more than the largest dataset previously encoded in this fashion.
Church’s team showed that, while the DNA technology is still slow, it is becoming more practical.

Advantages of DNA
Some of the advantages of storing data into DNA are that it can be easily copied, and often still readable after thousands of years. So much for the magnetic tape and DVD.
Digital data is usually stored as binary code—using the digits one and zero. DNA, on the other hand, stores data using four digits: A, C, G, and T. However, to minimize errors and to avoid the need to create very long sequences of codes, Church’s team maintained the binary code using A and C as zero, and G and T, as one.
The team built a sequence of artificial DNA letter by letter using the strings of As, Cs, Gs and Ts coding for the letters of the book. They embedded the fragments of data onto glass chips which contains the address code showing the location of the data within the original file.

Not so fast
However, this process took the researchers days to complete as the the speed of the chemical reactions involved is not as fast as conventional electronics.
In a separate supplement, the group said, “At some point, storing DNA as a single large mass with extremely large barcodes is both unrealistic and cumbersome no matter the future sequencing and synthesis technologies.”
“This is currently something for archival storage," said Dr. Sriram Kosuri of Harvard’s Wyss Institute.
“It is not rewritable,” Kosuri also said.
However, the researchers remain unfazed from pursuing further studies on the matter.
"We may hit a wall, but there's no fundamental reason why it shouldn't continue,” Kosuri said. — TJD, GMA News

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