Researchers say they're one step closer to a technology that could safely store digital data for thousands of years – by putting it on microscopic strands of DNA.
At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, a team of researchers reported they've been able to demonstrate encapsulating information on DNA that endured the equivalent of 2,000 years in storage with no errors when the data was retrieved and decoded.
They simulated the passage of centuries by embedding the data-carrying DNA in spheres of silica and heating them to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving them at that temperature for a week.
That equates to around two millennia at 50 degrees, the researchers say, yet when the data was retrieved and decoded it was complete and error-free.
The scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich say they've successfully encoded images, video and audio with the DNA technique, and that the long-term storage technique could accommodate anything that can be recorded as digital binary code.
As digital technology creates ever more massive amounts of data, some way of storing that in extremely compact form and for a long time becomes desirable, they say.
"A little after the discovery of the double helix architecture of DNA, people figured out that the coding language of nature is very similar to the binary language we use in computers," says researcher Robert Grass. "On a hard drive, we use 0s and 1s to represent data, and in DNA, we have four nucleotides A, C, T and G."
The long storage capability, requiring no constant supply of electricity, puts the DNA technology well ahead of any other nonpower archival techniques – think hard drives or magnetic tape – which tend to degrade in mere decades, the researchers say.
Such storage media haven't necessary been a step forward, they suggest.
"If you go back to medieval times in Europe, we had monks writing in books to transmit information for the future, and some of those books still exist," says Grass. "Now, we save information on hard drives, which wear out in a few decades."
Storage capacity is every bit as important as longevity, the researchers note; whereas an external hard drive about the size of a paperback book can hold 5 terabytes of information and preserve it for 50 years, a fraction of an ounce of DNA could, in theory, store more than 300,000 terabytes.
And, the scientists point out, that fact that DNA from archaeological finds can still be sequenced – i.e., decoded – today, hundreds of thousands of years after it was created, suggests data encoded onto DNA should be safe for as long as anyone might possibly conceive as necessary.
Researchers still have a few problems to sort – figuring out how to label and find specific pieces of information so the stored information becomes searchable, and making the technique affordable. Right now, encoding and saving several megabytes of data costs thousands of dollars.