Biostorage: A Secure Way to Store More Data

Heather Atkinson

Archiving demands a hefty amount of physical space. In the United States, the collection in the Library of Congress takes up a staggering 838 miles of bookshelves alone, according to the library’s website, which are brimming with 35 million books and printed materials, 3.4 million recordings, 13.6 million photographs, 5.4 million maps, 6.5 million pieces of sheet music, and 68 million manuscripts.

Nvate biostorage George Church and Sri Kosuri synthetic biology

Credit: Paul

And if these numbers aren’t dizzying enough as they are, that collection is growing steadily by about 11,000 items daily. The National Archives located in the United Kingdom is also home to an immense 11 million documents nestled into a sizeable stretch of 100 or so miles of shelving, which grows by at least one mile every year, according to the archives’ website.

Such space is necessary to preserve the massive quantities of information that are so essential to humanity’s predisposition to recordkeeping, but if you worked in the field of biostorage, you might be inclined to think that instead of 838 miles of bookshelves, all you’d need is a refrigerator.

Biostorage, which is the process of storing digital data in living organisms, is a relatively young field, only gracing the lab tables of science for a mere decade. Regardless of being under the microscope for such a short amount of time, biostorage is making quite an impression and the advancements are noteworthy.

Japan’s Keio University published an article in 2008 called “Stabilizing Synthetic Data in the DNA of Living Organisms,” which outlines the process of storing data in living organisms, saying that “by inserting a synthetic data-encoding DNA molecule into the genome of living organisms, the encoded data can be reproducible and inheritable in the small media vessel of the living cell. The properties of DNA provide the potential for realization of long-term data storage, which can be maintained as archived data for hundreds to thousands of years.”

How is Information Stored with Biostorage?

Researchers in Hong Kong have taken this technology a bit further by successfully storing complex data in E. coli bacteria. According to an article by the Agence France-Presse, the data is compressed, split into pieces and distributed to different bacterial cells. The DNA is mapped so the information can be easily located and re-assembled. The group claimed that in one gram of bacterial cells, they can store information equal to what can currently be held on 450, 2,000 gigabyte hard disks. And if security is an issue, biostorage takes care of that too. According to Allen Yu, a student instructor at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, “Bacteria can’t be hacked.”

Professor George Church, a Harvard University geneticist and founding core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biomedical Engineering, recently elevated the standard and increased the functionality of biostorage by encoding an astonishing 70 billion copies of his newest book, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves” into a portion of synthetic DNA that fits on a fingernail.

The gist of the system is that for the data to be stored it is broken down into binary code, with each of the bases of DNA—adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine—representing a binary value. The DNA can then be synthesized, and is simply sequenced and reverted back into binary in order to retrieve the information.

George Church and Sri Kosuri explain the process of biostorage in a video on the subject.

The theoretical performance of DNA storage is that the amount of data that the entire world creates in one year would fit nice and comfortably in about 4 grams of DNA. Taking into consideration the 838 miles of data-burdened shelving in the United States Library of Congress and the energy used to maintain it, the potential for utilizing biostorage boasts far more than its fair share of benefits.

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