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DNA sequencing is following an exponential technology curve and is one step on a path towards controlling our own biological destinies. From eliminating hereditary diseases by fixing specific genetic mutations to choosing physical and mental traits in our children, we are on the brink of a genetic revolution. However, using DNA to store data is already possible and may be a game changer in the near future.
Let me explain
In 2010, Dr. Craig Venter proved that DNA contains all of the necessary information for life by creating the first synthetic life form. At the most recent Abundance 360 summit, he pointed out that the 4 building blocks of DNA (A, T, C and G) can be converted into binary (1s and 0s), which is the boolean system used by computers. By converting ATCG into binary, it is possible to store and manipulate genetic code digitally. Saving data to a synthetic DNA ‘hard drive’ works by converting binary back into ATCG.
DNA has evolved over billions of years to efficiently store information. In 2012, researchers fit 700 Terabytes of information into a single gram of DNA. Storing that much data on digital hard drives would require hard drives weighing ~151 kilos (333 lbs). This technology is improving exponentially and the very next year, researchers tripled the storage density to 2,200 Terabytes per gram of DNA.
IBM predicts that 35 Zetabytes (35 billion Terabytes) of data will be generated annually in 2020. That’s ~7.6 billion kilos (8.4 million tons) of additional hard drive capacity required annually. The average skyscraper, like the Sears Tower, is ~222,500 tons, so we would need to build 378 new skyscrapers in 2020 just to house our data from that year. New York City has ~250 skyscrapers, so imagine building a new data storage city as big as NYC each year.
Even assuming that DNA data storage density doesn’t improve from the 2013 rate of 2,200 Terabytes per gram of DNA, we could store all 35 Zetabytes of annual data in ~15,909 kilos (17 tons) of DNA. That’s less than 2 buses worth.
The primary thing holding this technology back is the current expense of sequencing DNA to convert the data back to binary. Current DNA sequencing techniques cost ~$12k per Megabyte, which means that sequencing DNA that contains a 1 Gigabyte movie would cost $12 million.
DNA sequencing is an exponential technology and the cost is falling quickly. Given the amount of data we will soon be generating and the physical space that would be required using hard drives, DNA data storage may be our only hope.