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DNA Hard Drive Can Preserve Data for a Few Millennia

DNA hard drive

Image credit: In the search for ways to store data permanently, ETH researchers have been inspired by fossils / Philipp Stössel / ETH Zurich

With inspiration from fossilized bones, scientists have discovered an approach to preservation of data in the form of DNA enclosed in silica. Being released in the recent edition of Angewandte Chemie, such discovery findings could allow digital information to be permanently preserved, or for millions of years.

While ancient scrolls could survive for thousands of years, the information written on servers and hard drives would be preserved for a surprisingly short period of time, maybe around fifty years. That is the reason why in recent years, scientists have been focusing on DNA, which is regarded as storage medium of the nature. Although it is known that genetic material is capable of storing huge amount of information in a compact way, the previous efforts have failed because of difficulties in chemical degradation and mistaken sequencing, which could cause errors and gaps in the encoded data if it has to be retrieved.

However Robert Grass and his team from ETH Zurich have developed the long-term, error-free DNA storage not long ago. As Robert Grass said, they knew that if one just wanted to store it lying around, they would lose information. Therefore, they resorted to fossilized bones, which were capable of storing genetic material for incredibly long years. They were intended to protect the information-bearing DNA with a synthetic ‘fossil’ shell in the way that is similar to these bones, and they thought it would be reasonable to shelter DNA segments with glass.

By doing so, Grass’s team encoded Switzerland’s Federal Charter of 1291 and “The Methods of Mechanical Theorems” by Archimedes in DNA, which contains nearly 83 kilobytes of data. In the following step, they sealed the information-bearing DNA in silica spheres with width of 150 nanometers.

In order to imitate data-destroying conditions over hundreds of years, the team stored the DNA sheathed in glass for more than a month under the temperature of 60 to 70 degrees Celsius. Later a fluoride solution was applied for separation of the DNA from the silica glass, and afterwards they read the stored data by the means of simple DNA sequencing techniques. In comparison of DNA stored on filter paper and those on biopolymers, they discovered that their glass shell was very robust. Based on their calculations, if the information was stored at minus 18 degrees Celsius, like the temperatures found at Svalbard Global Seed Vault, it would be able to survive over a million years.

Furthermore, Grass and his colleagues also developed an algorithm to correct mistakes in the data so that errors would be kept low. The technique they were using was known as Reed-Solomon code, which was just like the techniques applied in long-distance transmission of data, similar to radio communication with a spacecraft in orbit.

If possible, Glass wanted to save the documents in the Memory of the World Program of Unesco as well as Wikipedia for millions of years.

Journal reference: Grass, Robert N., et al. “Robust Chemical Preservation of Digital Information on DNA in Silica with Error‐Correcting Codes.” Angewandte Chemie International Edition (2015).