DNA is so flexible that it can be used to create everything from an amoeba to a human, a dinosaur to a dandelion. And it's so small that the DNA needed to create all these life forms can be fitted into a single cell just micrometers large.
And while DNA has existed for billions of years as a way of storing the blueprints for life, now researchers are beginning to explore its potential as a storage medium for digital data.
Some of tech's biggest names are already looking into DNA's potential for long-term data storage. Microsoft, for example, earlier this year announced
it had worked with the University of Washington (UW) to store and retrieve 200MB of data -- including a song by OK Go! and the Declaration of Human Rights -- on DNA.
"We got to thinking that there's a trend in storage -- storage media is not growing the way we want it to. We know DNA is a very dense storage medium, and we know it has other properties that make it very interesting, like durability, and we go to this question of we should look at this as a potential storage medium," James Bornholt, a graduate student working on DNA storage in the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, told ZDNet.
As you'd expect for a storage medium found in cells so small that can't be seen with the naked eye, DNA offers one major advantage over conventional tape or SSD storage: density. According to Washington University researchers, if DNA was its storage medium, all the data found in Facebook's recently-built Oregon cold storage datacenter
could be fitted into the space of a sugar cube.
Another advantage: DNA is pretty much the oldest known storage medium there is. For those that have the algorithms to decode it, it can be read thousands of years after its creation
if it's stored in the right way.
Built of four units -- adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine -- that are linked to each other by hydrogen bonds and branch from a sugar-phosphate backbone, DNA is deceptively simple. But, by reading the way in which one base follows another, scientists have already begun to encode and decode information in much the same way as conventional computer storage uses a sequence of ones and zeroes.
With DNA being a base four system and binary base two, encoding digital data in DNA is relatively simple -- the zeros and ones are translated into cytosine, thymine, guanine, or adenine...