The world is transmitting more data today than ever in history. This is likely to increase almost six times between 2020 and 2025. Last year, the world generated 33 zettabytes of data and by 2025 this number could reach 175 zettabytes, far outpacing the rate of growth of facilities to store them. One zettabyte equals to a trillion gigabytes of data. There will also be a huge rise in demand for energy to run and maintain these facilities. What will happen then? How will this demand for data storage be met? This calls for novel solutions.

An interesting prospect to meet this storage demand lies inside the human body. Since the 1950s, scientists have discussed the possibility of using DNA as a way of storing data. At the outset, the proposition may sound a little out of the place, but it is a possibility.

DNA can be described as the molecule that stores all the genetic instructions needed to shape every living organism. “That’s a lot of information, and we have a copy of all that information in every single cell in our body,” Dr. Keith EJ Tyo, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at the Center for Synthetic Biology, Northwestern University, US, told Technology Networks.

Computers store information as binary digits, or bits (1 and 0). These bits are used as code to instruct programmes to run. Similarly, DNA has four nucleic acid bases — A, T, G, and C — which are strung together in different combinations to form genes. Researchers say the goal of DNA-based data storage is to encode and decode binary data to and from synthesized strands of DNA. But there are practical limitations to using DNA-based data storage.

So, Tyo and his colleagues have developed an in-vitro method for recording information on DNA. The method, Time-sensitive Untemplated Recording using TdT for Local Environmental Signals, or TURTLES, has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The study showed that the researchers were able to report up to 3/8th of a byte of information in one hour and it can be scaled. “A digital picture is millions of bytes and takes a fraction of a second to read and write to your hard drive. Parallelization to millions of strands of DNA will allow significantly more and faster data storage, but we are going to address technical hurdles to increase the number of bytes and shorten the record time of one DNA chain,” Tyo said.

Namita Bhan, the co-first author of the study, said it’s an exciting proof of concept for further development and potentially very rewarding.