DNA an option for data storage

Researchers have created a way to store data in the form of DNA and retrieve it without errors.

The researchers, from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in Hinxton, England, claim to have used such a method to store versions of an MP3 of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, along with a JPG photo and several text files.

Their research was published in the journal Nature in late January.

"We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from woolly mammoth bones, which date back tens of thousands of years, and make sense of it," said Nick Goldman, co-author of the EMBL-EBI study. "It's also incredibly small, dense and does not need any power for storage, so shipping and keeping it is easy."

Last fall, Harvard University researchers were able to store 70 billion copies of an HTML-formatted book in DNA binary code.

The difference between the two studies is that EMBL-EBI invented an error-correcting code that was "specially tailored to deal with the types of errors" that both reading and writing DNA tend to make, Goldman said.

Goldman and his co-author, Ewan Birney, associate director of EMBL-EBI, set out to create a code that overcomes both problems. The new method requires synthesizing DNA from the encoded information. The lab worked with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Agilent Technologies, a maker of measurement instruments such as oscilloscopes, to transmit the data and encode it in DNA.

Agilent synthesized hundreds of thousands of pieces of DNA to represent the data, then mailed the sample to EMBL-EBI. There, researchers were able to decode the file.

Goldman's team analyzed the cost-effectiveness of the technology and suggested that, for now, using DNA as a storage medium would be best suited for archival purposes, such as preserving personal photos or videos.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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