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Kevin Fogarty
Kevin Fogarty
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Does DNA Hold the Keys to the Future of Data Storage?

Remove storage as the biggest factor restricting the size of PC hardware, and you open up a whole new world of augmented reality.

Last Friday, researchers from Harvard published a paper describing how they were going to change everything in IT and the computer industry with just one new technique. Rather than always relying on data stored using clusters of magnetized grains on a spinning platter, they described a way to attach (fake) human DNA to a microchip to store so much data you could stash every byte on the Internet into a single thumb drive.

Other than seeing microchip and DNA and thinking it was a cool neuroscience experiment, you may have missed the story. Because it's storage. And storage is boring, especially for people who spend their days working on networks or software or in any other geek specialty.

The breakthrough, in a nutshell, was this: A team of Harvard geneticists working on ways to create a complete, entirely artificial chain of human DNA also discovered a technique to use DNA microchips to store ridiculously high volumes of data in a ridiculously small space.

DNA microchips, also called DNA microarrays, are microchips with strands of artificial DNA embedded in them, linked to the underlying circuitry and fused in place with melted plastic.

They're used mostly in the biotech industry to figure out which genes respond to which stimuli without having to have live cells or live patients right in front of the experimenter.

What DNA does best, however, is store data.

By using DNA sequencers for things they weren't designed to do, researchers are able to record tons of regular data within DNA--customer records, for example, as well as instructions for whether your eyes should be brown or blue.

Using their own techniques--which involved an inkjet printer that produced the synthetic strands of DNA and a couple of days each to do the write and read of data onto the microarrays--the Harvard team was able to store the full 5.27M bytes of data that made up a large genetics text book onto 55,000 strands of DNA, representing less than a thousandth of a gram of material.

Top-quality hard drives can store about 25G bytes per square inch, or between 5G and 6G bits per cubic millimeter, according to a paper in the journal Solid State Technology.

The DNA microchips ginned up by the Harvard team can hold 5.5 petabits, or 5.5 million gigabits per cubic millimeter. That's roughly 110 million percent more than a good hard drive or flash drive can manage today.

Keep in mind these numbers are purely imaginary simply projections of future capacity based on reports from an experiment that succeeded in storing 600 times as much data on one microarray as anyone ever did before, and whose results may never be replicated.

Of course, engineers and storage vendors being the way they are, it's likely that if the Harvard team's results are never matched it will be because commercial R&D teams beat those results like a dead horse, not because they couldn't reach the mark.

Either way, if DNA microarray storage turns into a real, practical, stable, cost-effective way to store data, it will knock the pins out from under the single factor limiting changes in the design of digital hardware--the size of its onboard storage.

Next: The Smaller the Better, When It Comes to the Future of Data Storage

Kevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio
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