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Harvard stores 70 billion books using DNA

Research team stores 5.5 petabits, or 1 million gigabits, per cubic millimeter in DNA storage medium

August 20, 2012 04:40 PM ET

Computerworld - Harvard researchers have been able to use sequencing technology to store 70 billion copies of a yet-unpublished book in DNA binary code.

The results of the project by researchers at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University were published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

"The total world's information, which is 1.8 zettabytes, [could be stored] in about four grams of DNA," said Sriram Kosuri, a senior scientist at the Wyss Institute and senior author of the paper, in a video presentation.

The researchers created the binary code through DNA markers to preserve the text of the book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA. The book was written by research team member George Church.

"We ... wanted something that represents modern digital, so we used an HTML version of a book," Church said in a video presentation.

"The HTML form -- let's say the web form -- includes digital images [and a] Java script programming language that performs something interactively with a person. So we encoded that into zeros and ones into DNA," Church added.

A DNA double helix in an undated artist's illustration released by the National Human Genome Research Institute. (Source: Reuters)

Church, a professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, helped develop the first direct genomic sequencing method in 1984. He was also a member of the team that initiated the Human Genome Project that year as a scientist working at Biogen Inc.

The Harvard researchers stored 5.5 petabits, or 1 million gigabits, per cubic millimeter in the DNA storage medium. Because of the slow process for setting down the data, the researchers consider the DNA storage medium currently suitable only for data archive purposes.

"The information density and scale compare favorably with other experimental storage methods from biology and physics," Kosuri said.

The team also included Yuan Gao, a former Wyss postdoctoral scholar and now an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists have long seen DNA as a potential storage medium because of its atomic size, stability and its lifespan of thousands of years. The Harvard researchers were able to boost the data capacity of previous attempts by 1,000 times.

"Most non-DNA methods store on a plane, while DNA can be stored in the volume (beaker). The density is remarkably high - as little as one bit per base, one base per cubit nanometer. So we can store on the order of almost a zetabyte in a gram of DNA - a millimeter volume," Church added.

Last year, Keio University Institute for Advanced Biosciences and the Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus announced that researchers there used artificial DNA to carry more than 100 bits of data within the genome sequence.

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