Researchers at a Zurich university have succeeded in storing and retrieving digital information in DNA segments, the molecules that encode genetic information, a breakthrough that could lengthen the lifespan of information storage by millions of years.
In a paper published by Angewandte Chemie (paywall), the team of researchers from Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule described how they managed to translate the 1291 Federal Charter of Switzerland and Archimedes' The Methods of Mechanical Theorums, a total of 83 kilobytes of information, into 4991 segments of DNA.
The 158 nucleotide-long DNA segments were then encapsulated in siliica, turning it into what the researchers called a synthetic fossil.
Protected by silica (glass) spheres 150 nanometres in diameter, the DNA was not degradated by environmental factors, similar to the way fossilised bones that are hundreds of thousands of years old are preserved.
The robustness of the DNA storage method was tested by storing it for a week at temperatures between 60 to 70 degrees Celsius to simulate the same chemical degradation that would take place over thousands of years.
To retrieve the information encoded in the DNA, researchers separated it with ease from the glass using a fluoride solution.
An ETH Zürich researcher developed a Reed-Solomon code-based error correction scheme to read back the information stored in the DNA without errors, using sequencing.
While a practical DNA storage system is still some years away, the researchers noted that the robustness of their method and the ability to use error-correction to retrieve data could help create long-term information preservation vaults.
This would overcome the current problem of storing digital information for more than fifty years, as well as on older media types.
Compared to text printed on paper and images captured on microfilm, which survive for over 500 years, DNA stored information kept at freezing temperatures such as in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault near the Arctic could be preserved for over a million years, the researchers believe.
DNA could hold massive amounts of information, with each gram of the molecule being capable of storing 455 exabytes of data, well beyond the capabilities of inorganic memory devices such as hard disks or even quantum computing methods.
Researchers in the United States were able to encode a 5.27 megabyte book with images into DNA two years ago, and work is continuing to make the technology more practical to use.