DNA: Repurposing an Old Form of Storage

Plenty of forms of information storage have become obsolete – punch cards, VHS tape, floppy disks and, increasingly, the CD. Technology formats that store our data come and go.  If we are storing information on storage devices that become obsolete within 15 years, how can we pass along fundamental information to future generations?

The possibility of using DNA for long-term storage is sparking interest. DNA, as long as it’s stored in a cool, dark, dry place lasts for tens of thousands of years without degrading. It can persist without a power source and is also compatible for millenniums to come. The other amazing thing about DNA is how much information can be stored in a small space.

Currently the world’s data is sitting at about 1.8 zettabytes, which would take about 40 billion laptops to store. Check out this infographic to help put that into perspective. With DNA-based storage, the entire world’s data could fit into 4 grams! Just 4 grams.

But how far down the line is wide use of DNA as storage?

DNA as storage medium will not be commercially implemented for a while at its current cost of $12,400 per MB (remember the common storage of today wasn’t always cheap). It is a provocative idea that could allow data to be stored for generations, but for the time being our technology cannot quickly translate data from DNA to usable form. The two weeks required to process what could be easily stored on a small USB drive places this storage option into the deepest, coldest archive category.

It will be a while before we can store and pass down knowledge or historic keepsakes to future generations with DNA. I’m sure this topic will come up again as the price and processing speed of DNA as storage develops in the years to come. If the cost drops significantly, you may want to start thinking about what you want to pass along to those in the future. In the meantime, make sure you have both local and offsite copies of those files you need to keep protected. When DNA storage becomes a viable option, you’ll just need to restore your files and transfer them to this long lasting form of storage!