Within the past decade, technology has made it possible to produce content faster, more easily, and in more places than ever before. In fact, there is so much digital information out there that much of it is at risk of being lost or destroyed.
So how do we keep it safe? According to researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), the best way to store large amounts of data is in the form of DNA.
Unlike traditional hard drives, which are expensive and require a constant supply of electricity, DNA lasts for tens of thousands of years, is incredibly compact, and requires no electricity.
"We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from bones of woolly mammoths, which date back tens of thousands of years, and make sense of it," said EBI researcher Nick Goldman in a press release.
This new method, described in the journal Nature, makes it possible to store at least 100 million hours of high-definition video in about a cup of DNA.
Cracking the Code
According to a National Public Radio report, Goldman and his colleague Ewan Birney came up with the idea over beers at a pub while discussing their own dilemma about how to store important research materials.
In order to test their DNA storage theory, they sent encoded versions of an .mp3 of Martin Luther King's speech, "I Have a Dream,” a .pdf of James Watson and Francis Crick's seminal paper, "Molecular structure of nucleic acids," and a .txt file of all of Shakespeare's sonnets to Agilent Technologies, a company based in California.
"We downloaded the files from the Web and used them to synthesize hundreds of thousands of pieces of DNA—the result looks like a tiny piece of dust," said Emily Leproust of Agilent in a press release.
Agilent then mailed the DNA sample to EBI, where Goldman and Birney were able to sequence the DNA and decode the files without errors.
"We've created a code that's error tolerant using a molecular form we know will last in the right conditions for 10,000 years, or possibly longer," said Goldman. "As long as someone knows what the code is, you will be able to read it back if you have a machine that can read DNA."
Other Organic Approaches
DNA isn’t the only development in hard drive technology. According to a new study appearing in Science, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle and Southeast University in China have discovered a molecule that could serve as a natural alternative to the silicon-based semiconductors currently used in storage devices.
This new molecule is made from bromine, a natural element isolated from sea salt, mixed with carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Described as a ferroelectric, it is positively charged on one side and negatively charged on the other. Today, synthetic ferroelectrics are used in most displays, sensors, and memory chips.
According to study co-author Jiangyu Li, a professor of mechanical engineering at UW, there are many advantages to using organic ferroelectrics instead. Not only are they a cost-effective way to store information, but they also provide a flexible, nontoxic material for medical sensors that could potentially be implanted in the body.
“This molecular crystal will not replace current inorganic ferroelectrics right away,” Li said in an interview with Healthline. “…But it is important to advance along that direction, showing that molecular ferroelectrics can have properties and performance parallel to their inorganic counterparts.”
A Glimpse into the Future
Though scientists still have to work out many kinks in both new methods, we can be certain that organic materials will play a leading role in the development of future storage devices.
According to researchers, the next step in making the DNA concept a reality is to perfect the coding scheme and to explore ideas that may pave the way for a commercially viable DNA storage model.
As for organic ferroelectric sensors, Li said that, in the future, we can envision “memory cells and energy harvesters that are easier to process, more cost effective, environmentally friendly and biocompatible.” His molecule is also made up of pivoting chemical bonds that allow it to flex, making it well-suited to the emerging trend toward ‘flexible electronics,’ which can be folded, bent or rolled up.
“Molecular ferroelectrics can play a big role in enabling flexible electronics as integral components for sensing, data storage, energy harvesting, and capacitance,” Li said.