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DNA as a content storage device is closer than you think

Storing content in DNA may one day be possible, but today, it's neither practical nor cost-effective. Here's where this technology stands in today's world.

"I could fit all movies ever made inside of this tube," bioinformatician Dina Zielinski said at the beginning of a TED talk, motioning toward a small glass tube about an inch long containing synthetic DNA.

Humans generate, store and consume incomprehensibly large amounts of content on a daily basis -- including email, tweets, posts, blogs, pictures, music, videos and analysis of complex systems -- and one day, it may be possible to use DNA as a content storage device.

Several different types of digital storage mechanisms have been developed over the years, including punch cards, paper tape, magnetic tape and, later, computer disks in various forms. To put capacity scale in perspective, the hard drive was invented by IBM in 1956. It weighed a ton, stored 5 MB of data and had to be moved around with a forklift. Samsung recently developed a 2.5-inch 16 TB capacity hard drive that fits inside a laptop. The Samsung drive is not spinning disk magnetic technology but a solid-state drive, or silicon technology.

Common characteristics of storage mechanisms invented so far are their finite storage capacity and limited life span through obsolescence with technology advances. For example, modern laptops no longer have floppy drives, and most don't even have a CD/DVD drive. Often, people think cloud content management is the answer. However, the cloud is little more than many computers with multiple hard drives that require an abundance of physical space and energy, housed in off-site buildings.

The ability to store content in DNA is real but not yet practical, scalable or cost-effective.

It is difficult to predict the evolving future of technologies, but research points to the possibility of DNA as content storage devices. The entire blueprint of a human is contained within a single cell. The human genome consists of 3 billion sequences of DNA letters coded as A, C, T and G. If the human genome were printed out on paper, it would stack to 130 meters high and could be encoded digitally to a few gigabytes.

Genetic technology has evolved rapidly, mirroring advances in computing technologies, and is now at a point when genes are routinely sequenced -- that is, they can be read, written, copied and created as synthetic sequences.

DNA is durable; scientists have extracted it from ancient humans that lived thousands of years ago. Zielinski's hypothesis is that there is a better chance of recovering information from an ancient human than an old phone due to obsolescence.

The ability to store content in DNA is real but not yet practical, scalable or cost-effective. The initial use for DNA storage might be in the long-term archive of large content sets. However, as with many emerging technologies, commoditization will likely lead to low-cost practical DNA content storage devices that consumers can buy in a local store along with groceries.

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