DNA and Storage

By Henry Newman

Did anyone hear the NPR story on storing some of Shakespeare’s sonnets in DNA?

The two researchers are not the first to develop an encoding scheme and store things in DNA, but their approach was very interesting. The researchers, Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman, even addressed a concern that I had with DNA storage—mutation, which we call bit rot or silent data corruption.

So is it time to develop an agreed-upon encoding scheme for DNA storage, including an agreed-upon ECC encoding?

The cost of this DNA storage was extremely high at $12,400 per MB, so the cost is going to have to come way down before anyone gets spun up doing this. It is not clear from the article if the cost includes the ECC or just the raw data, but a terabyte of storage would cost $12,400,000,000. Even if the price comes down at 50 percent per year, we are still talking the next decade before this becomes affordable.

The other issues that need to be considered include the following:

  1. What is the long-term shelf life and what are the shelf life conditions? There needs to be reliability testing to determine the amount of ECC that will be needed.
  2. The current read and write time is abysmal—weeks to write and hours to days to read. Nanotechnology must be developed for DNA storage to be successful.
  3. There needs to be a standards body. Will it be an ANSI IT group or will it be a genetics group?

A few years ago at a conference, I though the idea of DNA storage was absurd. I said to someone, "You have red hair and blue eyes, and genes mutate, which is why we do not look alike." The idea of having ECC built into DNA storage had not crossed my mind.

I think it is time to start thinking about some long-term reliability studies to see if this could be part of the storage hierarchy.

This article was originally published on May 16, 2013