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    We Can Now Store Data on Single Strands of DNA

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    Adam Clark Estes

    Remember iPods? I do, and I remember them well. I remember the time I first I saw one. It was in Switzerland, of all places, and I was at a high school dance, of all things. I was dressed up as Lance Armstrong and bumped into another American guy who was about my age. He was a cyclist and was lauding Lance — those were the days! — when I noticed a shiny thing in his hand with wires coming out of it.

    "It's an iPod," he replied. "What's an iPod?" I wondered, innocently. "It's a music player, for mp3s and stuff," he explained. "Oh, so how many songs can you jam on that thing? Like 20?" was my next question. He laughed, "More like 2,000 — It's got ten gigabytes." And then my head exploded.

    It's easy to forget how far we've come with technology, especially data storage. Science is here to remind you, however, that we're only beginning to realize full extent of the possibilities technology provides. And this week, the prize for the most impressive leap forward blow-your-mind science goes to a team from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) who've developed a technique to store data on individual strands of synthetic DNA. Considering that a conventional hard drive encodes data on a physical disk that's typically the size of, well, an iPod, just imagine how small these devices could become if we started storing data on a microscopic level. 

    DNA, by the way, is very, very small. To be exact, it's between two and four nanometers, depending on how you measure it. The team from EBI developed their synthetic DNA data storage technique on a number of different data formats, by encoding the text from all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets, a 26-second clip from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, a copy of James Watson and Francis Crick’s classic paper on the structure of DNA, a photo of their institute, and a file describing how the new process works.

    In the end, they found that a single strand of DNA could store about 739 kilobytes of data. Some back of the napkin math shows that a centimeter worth of encoded DNA strands can store some 7,050 gigabytes. So if you imagine stuffing data-enabled DNA into the size of the current iPod Classic, it would be able to hold roughly 42,000 gigabytes of data, or, like, a bajillion songs.

    These are all rough estimates, but you get the point. Besides the unbelievable storage capacity, the other nice thing about data encoded on DNA is that it's virtually indestructible. Consider that we've found cells from wooly mammoths that have been trapped in ice for tens out thousands of years and were still able to extract the DNA information. It's hard to say if the same would be true for this synthetic data, but researchers are confident that it's pretty damn durable.

    As one of those on the team put it, "Stick the DNA in a cave in Norway for a thousand years and we’ll still be able to read it." This would be even more helpful in the event of an apocalyptic event which, researchers say, the DNA could survive. "[Future generations would] quickly notice that this isn’t DNA like anything they’ve seen,” says Nick Goldman, leader of the research team. “There are no repeats, and everything is the same length. It’s obviously not from a bacterium or a human. Maybe it’s worth investigating.”

    Now for the bad news. This technique is really expensive. I mean really expensive. To encode just a megabyte worth of data onto a strand of synthetic DNA would cost an estimated $12,400 and to read it would cost another $220. So listening to the Jimmy Buffett box set on your new DNA-powered iPod would cost, to put it bluntly, a shitload of money.

    As Nature points out, the cost of encoding and reading DNA has been dropping exponentially in recent years, and the process should be affordable in the next 50 years. In the meantime, we face another challenge: finding a way to hook it up to a processor. About six months ago, scientist developed a way to encode data onto a single molecule, but the amount of wiring and circuitry required to make the data useful, practically erased all of the space saved by the tiny, molecule-sized storage units.

    Let's focus on the good news though. If a decade ago the arrival of the 10 gigabyte iPods made your face melt like it did mine, you're going to love the 10 petabyte iPod. Now it's up to the recording industry to make enough decent music to justify the space.

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