News Column

DNA: The Newest Storage Device for Data

Jan. 24, 2013

Karen Weintraub, Special for USA TODAY

DNA strands
DNA strands

A team of British researchers has used DNA -- the genetic building blocks of life -- to record Shakespeare's sonnets and excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

The experiment, along with another published late last year, shows that what we think about as life's alphabet can also be used to preserve our greatest creations, perhaps for thousands or tens of thousands of years.

"The idea that DNA, which people think of as a biological molecule, can be used as a physical storage tape in a non-biological function is pretty incredible," said Drew Endy, a Stanford University bioengineer who was not involved in the work reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"It's a really nice example of how a fundamental investment in a basic scientific tool can lead to (amazing things)."

The researchers used strands of DNA synthesized by a machine -- not from a living creature -- encoded to create the zeros and ones of digital technology. Although the two teams worked independently and used different codes, their papers are "fraternal twins," Endy said, that show it will soon be both realistic and practical to record vast reams of information in strands of chemicals too small to see.

Scientists have been able to recover DNA from a woolly mammoth, dead for 20,000 years, so the researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute who conducted the new study said they expect information stored on DNA will be around for a while.

The first team, a group at Harvard University led by geneticist George Church, published its results in Science in September.

Europeans Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman, whose study appears in Nature, said they first thought of the idea in a pub, when they were discussing the challenges of archiving vast amounts of data on costly magnetic tape or hard drives.

Both groups are serious now. They managed to use a commercially available sequencing machine to generate the amino acid components of DNA, which are abbreviated as A, C, T and G.

Because repeated letters caused errors, the European group came up with a code to avoid them. In their version, Shakespeare's sonnet, "Thou art more lovely and more temperate," begins "TAGAT, GTGTA, CAGAC."

Also to prevent errors, every stretch of DNA is repeated four times, twice backward, in overlapping strands that the computer can quickly put back together and read accurately, Goldman said.

Reading the DNA is the expensive part right now, though both teams predict that cost will come down exponentially within the next decade, putting DNA storage potentially within reach of average people. Birney predicted that couples could soon be storing their wedding videos on DNA, to be seen by their grandchildren.

(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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