Scientists have discovered a method to store data in DNA and say it is a sufficient alternative to hard discs.

Although it may seem strange that a person’s DNA can actually store digital data inside it, the method lies in the way researchers translate their files from the hard drive to the test tube, using a series of codes.

Researchers at the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), who say it is possible to store at least 100 million hours of high-definition video in about a cup of DNA, argue that the DNA format is ideal as it is a material that lasts for tens of thousands of years.

As hard disks are expensive and require a constant supply of electricity, and even the best ‘no-power’ archiving materials such as magnetic tape degrade within a decade, the UK-based experts have managed to work out an alternative.

Data from woolly mammoth bones

Nick Goldman of EBI, said that due to the masses of digital information in the world – about three zettabytes worth, and as the constant influx of new digital content poses a real challenge for archivists, they had to look to a new innovation.

“We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from woolly mammoth bones, which date back tens of thousands of years – and make sense of it,” Goldman said.

Reading DNA is fairly straightforward, but writing it has until now been a major hurdle to making DNA storage a reality.

US tech company drafted in

The new method requires synthesizing DNA from the encoded information, which is why the institute enlisted help from a California-based company, Agilent Technologies Inc.

The scientists sent Agilent encoded versions of an MP3 of Martin Luther King’s speech, ‘I Have a Dream’, a jpg photo of EBI, a PDF, a text file of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a file that describes the encoding.

Agilent downloaded the files from the web and used them to synthesise hundreds of thousands of pieces of DNA.

They then mailed the sample to EBI, where the researchers were able to sequence the DNA and decode the files without errors.

“We’ve created a code that’s error tolerant using a molecular form we know will last in the right conditions for 10,000 years, or possibly longer. As long as someone knows what the code is, you will be able to read it back if you have a machine that can read DNA,” Goldman added.

New record set

This experiment, which has set a new record of 739.3 kilobytes for the amount of unique information encoded, demonstrates the feasibility of using DNA as a long-term, data-dense storage medium for huge amounts of information.

The team of experts say they knew that DNA was an incredibly efficient and compact way to store information, which is why they set about devising a way to turn molecules into digital memory.

[Image via wakpaper]