DNA Memory And Computing

Imagine storing 700 Terabytes of data in a 1 gram strand of DNA about the size of a single droplet of water. You can store it just about anywhere, at normal room temperature, come back in a quarter million years or so if you need to decode it. In just under half a teaspoon of DNA (about 4 grams), you can theoretically store the total amount of data created by man in a 1 year period.

Harvard Medical School professor George Church and his team have encoded Church's book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, copied 70 billion times, onto a strand of DNA. Church reports that his team is successfully encoding data into DNA at a density of about 1 bit per cubic nanometer.

This particular DNA is not part of a living organism, but created standalone DNA (using commercial DNA microchips), created solely for the team's purpose.

Researchers in Germany and Taiwan have also been working toward "paving the way" to creating a cost-effective DNA memory device.

Californian and Israeli scientists have been working on a "biological computer" capable of encrypting and decrypting images on "DNA chips". Ehud Keinen of Scripps Research and Technion reported:
"Our biological computing device is based on the 75-year-old design by the English mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist Alan Turing... Our device is based on the model of a finite state automaton, which is a simplified version of the Turing machine." (source)

Back at Harvard, Professor Church conceives scenarios where we might have inexpensive cameras writing to DNA memory.
“Imagine that you had really cheap video recorders everywhere... Just paint walls with video recorders. And for the most part they just record and no one ever goes to them. But if something really good or really bad happens you want to go and scrape the wall and see what you got. So something that’s molecular is so much more energy efficient and compact that you can consider applications that were impossible before.” (George Church via R. Alan Leo)  
Here is video of Church and his team:


Not long after Google Earth was introduced, I imagined a future Google Earth where we would see full-motion video feeds and replays from space rather than the still imagery that still amazes us today, but then I calculated the probable cost, as well as physical space required for such a storage feat and realized that technologies would need to drastically change in capacity and cost. These new breakthroughs with storing data in DNA provide a glimpse ahead to the not distant future when you will be looking at google earth and watching actual video feeds from satellites, rather than static photographs. Imagine retracing your trip on any given day in the past, by watching it unfold from video in the sky. This could get really cool, and really spooky, very fast. It looks like DNA is emerging as a very ancient method to meet some extremely cutting edge needs.

DNA stretches back into history for as long as earth-life itself. How fitting that DNA may be the very solution for recording our history long into the future as well.

(via gigaom.com; extremetech.com; R. Alan Leo in Harvard Medical School news "Writing the Book in DNA"; Next-Generation Digital Information Storage in DNA, ScienceMag.org; Scripps.edu
Todd Hopkinson