Breakthrough tech makes DNA data storage more practical and scalable
As with many technologies, nature outdid us long ago in terms of data storage – just one gram of DNA can store 215 million GB of data. But artificial DNA data storage systems could soon become more practical, thanks to a new technology named DORIS that can read and write files at room temperature without damaging the DNA.
Every cell in your body contains a mind-boggling amount of information, encoded as DNA. Tapping into this as a data storage system is an incredibly exciting prospect, with scientists saying that the extreme density would allow us to store the entirety of the accessible internet – an estimated 700 billion GB – in a shoebox.
Along with that density comes longevity. Our best solid state drives and Blu-Ray discs only have life expectancies of a few decades at most, and even then only if they’re kept in optimal conditions. DNA, on the other hand, could potentially last millions of years.
Unfortunately, it’s currently not practical at large scales due to some fiddly processes in reading and writing the data. But in the new study, researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) have made a breakthrough in overcoming some of these barriers.
“Most of the existing DNA data storage systems rely on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to access stored files, which is very efficient at copying information but presents some significant challenges,” says Albert Keung, co-corresponding author of the study. “We’ve developed a system called Dynamic Operations and Reusable Information Storage, or DORIS, that doesn’t rely on PCR. That has helped us address some of the key obstacles facing practical implementation of DNA data storage technologies.”
In systems built on PCR, information is encoded in DNA strands that swim around freely in a “genetic soup.” Primer-binding sequences are attached to the ends of these strands, and act like file names. When a specific file is needed, PCR is used to search through the soup for the right primer-binding sequence, and the information in the attached DNA strand is retrieved and copied.
The problem is that in order to get to this primer-binding sequence, the soup needs to be heated then cooled to tear the double-stranded DNA apart. That gradually destroys the original files, and it means that heating and cooling tech needs to be integrated. All up, that cuts into the practicality of DNA data storage systems.
But the researchers on the new study say their system bypasses those problems. It sounds simple – DORIS’s primer-binding sequences are made up of a single-stranded tail of DNA that hangs off the end. That allows the system to find and retrieve files without needing to rip open the data-encoded DNA strands.
“In other words, DORIS can work at room temperature, making it much more feasible to develop DNA data management technologies that are viable in real-world scenarios,” says James Tuck, co-corresponding author of the study.
The team also says that this could boost the information density of DORIS, and it doesn’t consume the original file when reading it. These overhanging sequences can also be modified on demand, so users can rename or delete files, and even lock them so other users can’t find them.
Currently DORIS is an effective proof-of-concept, but the researchers plan to continue working on it to make the system more effective.
“We’ve developed a functional prototype of DORIS, so we know it works,” says Keung. “We’re now interested in scaling it up, speeding it up and putting it into a device that automates the process – making it user friendly.”
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.