Could DNA provide the answer to our data storage conundrum?

We and numerous other companies within the data recovery and tech-spheres have written about how, in the age of big data, we’re producing files at such a rate that there is an urgent need for media to offer far greater storage density than is currently possible. Several potential solutions for this problem have been posited by scientists throughout the last decade. One, though, has captured the imagination like no other: DNA Digital Data Storage.  

Yes, for more than a decade the material that forms the building blocks of life has been touted as a means of storing vast quantities of data in unimaginably small spaces. In 2012, a journal published the results of a study conducted by geneticists at Harvard University within which it was claimed that 5.5 PBs (that’s 55,000 GBs) of data could be stored in just one cubic millimetre of DNA; both the concept of storing data in DNA and the storage density that can be achieved through this method both seem to belong in a science-fiction novel.

With such incredible storage capacities, the contents of a data centre could be stored in a takeaway coffee cup. This would significantly reduce the environmental damage brought about by our thirst for data. The energy needed to run data centres and the process of collecting the materials needed to manufacture storage media both have a substantial effect on the natural world but, with the creation of such high-density storage media, these problems would be almost entirely eradicated.

So, DNA digital data storage would appear to be the answer to a very big problem. As we’ve said previously, though, it’s been touted as such for just over a decade and, whilst researchers appear to be moving towards a means of making it a practicable solution, progress has been slow. Whilst this is not surprising considering the enormity and difficulty of the task these researchers have been assigned with, it does not change the fact that a solution for our storage woes is desperately needed now – not in several years or decades.

Additionally, there are problems with practicality and cost. The process of retrieving data stored within DNA is arguably the greatest challenge faced by researchers and developers. A significant breakthrough was made here in 2017 when several pieces of data including an operating system, a short film and a computer virus were stored within synthesised DNA and then retrieved with DNA sequencing technology, but researchers still face significant challenges.

The first thing to note is that synthesising the data for this experiment cost $7,000 (just over £5,000) and a further $2,000 (£1,460) was spent on retrieving the relevant files. In other words, it’s far too expensive to replace flash media and HDDs at this stage. The process of reading the data stored in DNA is also extremely slow meaning that it would simply not be suitable for anything beyond archiving at this stage.

So, whilst we may be approaching the verge of a brave new world (in terms of data storage, at least), it remains to be seen when, or if, DNA digital data storage will become the de facto means of storing digital files.