New DNA Storage Could Hold All Your Data

Using nature’s hard drive

Key Takeaways

  • Recent breakthroughs could allow the use of DNA to store vast amounts of data for long periods.  
  • One expert said DNA storage technology could hold more than 50,000 times as much information as a microSD memory card in the same amount of space. 
  • But DNA storage faces engineering obstacles before it’s commercially feasible.
Scientists in a lab studying some form of DNA.

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You might soon be able to store your data using DNA. 

The field of DNA information storage is rapidly accelerating with recent announcements of breakthroughs by researchers in the United States and China. Experts say that DNA offers the potential to pack more information into a smaller space than conventional drives. 

"You can think of your one terabyte microSD memory card; it weighs about 250 milligrams," Hieu Bui, a professor who studies DNA computing at The Catholic University of America, told Lifewire in an email interview. "The same weighted DNA storage material could hold 53,000 times more data than that of the microSD card, and you probably don't have to buy another memory card for a long time."

A Natural Hard Drive

The idea of storing information in DNA, the molecule composed of two polynucleotide chains that coil around each other to form a double helix carrying genetic instructions, has been around for decades but has been hampered by technical problems. 

In the research paper, Microsoft announced the first nanoscale DNA storage writer. The researchers said they could reach a DNA write density of 25 x 10^6 sequences per square centimeter, which approaches the minimum write speeds required for DNA storage.

"A natural next step is to embed digital logic in the chip to allow individual control of millions of electrode spots to write kilobytes per second of data in DNA," the Microsoft researchers wrote in a blog post. "From there, we foresee the technology reaching arrays containing billions of electrodes capable of storing megabytes per second of data in DNA."

Chinese researchers also recently announced a DNA storage breakthrough. Unlike other approaches that store information on a long ribbon, the researcher split the content into sequences and kept these on different electrodes.

And scientists at Georgia Tech Research Institute said recently that they had made advances toward the goal of a new microchip able to grow DNA strands that could provide high-density 3D archival data storage at ultra-low-cost and be able to hold that information for hundreds of years.

"We've been able to show that it's possible to grow DNA to the sort of length that we want, and at about the feature size that we care about using these chips," Nicholas Guise, one of the researchers, said in the news release. "The goal is to grow millions of unique, independent sequences across the chip from these microwells, with each serving as a tiny electrochemical bioreactor.

More Data, Less Space

DNA could revolutionize data storage, but it's not clear when you'll use the technology in your gadgets. 

A person in a lab coat staring up at a double helix made of baloons.

Anthony Harvie / Getty Images

"In the future, users could expect DNA storage systems to hold a vast amount of information, occupy far less space, consume a small amount of green energy, and retain digital data beyond the owner's lifetime," Bui said. 

But it's unlikely that the average user will benefit from DNA data storage anytime soon, data strategist Nick Heudecker told Lifewire in an email interview.  He said the technology could be ideal for storing massive amounts of data over very long periods. This kind of archival storage would be helpful for organizations like the Library of Congress or the intelligence community rather than on a laptop. 

"Right now, individuals using DNA for data storage are typically gimmicks, like storing your bitcoin wallet passcode as DNA so you can't lose it," Heudecker said. "Over time, you could see enterprises using cloud-based DNA data storage to off-load their most valuable, but least frequently accessed, data to DNA, but that's 5-10 years out at a minimum."

DNA storage also faces engineering obstacles before it's commercially feasible. Costs are high, and speeds are slow, Heudecker said. The process of using DNA for storage is also very complex. 

"Unlike today's data storage, DNA' disk drives' run on chemicals and fluidics," Heudecker said. "They look more like a lab experiment, with tubes and pumps, than a computer." 

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