DNA Data Storage Just Got a Bit More Practical

Illustration: Science Photo Library/Corbis

For two years now, researchers have been storing digital information in the form of DNA, but there has remained some question as to whether it’s a practical solution for digital storage.

Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) have addressed a number of the problems associated with using DNA as data storage—enough so that they believe it can be used for error-free storage of information.  If their solution proves successful, it could open the door for data storage that lasts for a million years.

Researchers around the world have been investigating a variety of new methods for storing digital information because we’ll be lucky if the solutions we have now, like hard drives and servers, can keep faithful records for fifty years. DNA has been among those potential alternatives. But errors during data retrieval have been the method’s bugaboo. Gaps and false information in the encoded data result from chemical degradation and mistakes in DNA sequencing.

In research published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the Swiss team was able to overcome the problem of chemical degradation of the DNA by encapsulating the genetic material in silica (glass) spheres with diameters of around 150 nanometers.

In order to test the quality of their encapsulation, the researchers simulated a long period of time by storing the information-encoded DNA at temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius for up to a month. This simulated, within a few weeks, the degradation that would occur over hundreds of years under normal conditions.

After finding that the silica capsules outperformed several other materieals they tested, the researchers then moved on to ensuring that the DNA remained error free.

While advances in DNA sequencing make it possible to read stored data on DNA affordably, affordability and exactitude don’t always go hand in hand. To overcome this problem, the researchers have developed a way to correct any errors based on the Reed-Solomon Codes, error-correcting codes normally used to ensure accurate data recovery after long-distance data transmission.

The scheme adds just a bit more data to ensure that what’s encoded is error free. “In order to define a parabola, you basically need only three points,” said Reinhard Heckel from ETH Zurich’s Communication Technology Laboratory in a press release. “We added a further two in case one gets lost or is shifted.”



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY