One gram of DNA is theoretically capable of holding all the data from Google and Facebook combined

Storing data with things like USP sticks and discs just won’t cut it when it comes to the long-term historical picture, which is why researchers are turning to DNA for major data storage that could last the ages. Not only can 1 gram of DNA hold 455 exabytes of data (enough to hold everything from […]

Storing data with things like USP sticks and discs just won’t cut it when it comes to the long-term historical picture, which is why researchers are turning to DNA for major data storage that could last the ages.

Not only can 1 gram of DNA hold 455 exabytes of data (enough to hold everything from Google, Facebook and every other major tech company combined), it’s also very durable – it has previously been extracted and sequenced from 700,000-year-old horse bones, according to New Scientist.

The conditions must be just right, though, which is why Robert Grass of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and his colleagues tried to mimic the fossil environment (excluding water) by keeping the DNA in microscopic spheres of glass.

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“We know that if you just store it lying around, you lose information,” says Grass.

So how would this work?

They began by looking at the way information is encoded on a DNA strand. The simplest method treats the DNA bases A and C as a “0” and G and T as a “1”. Of course, any damage to the DNA leaves holes in the data, so the team used an error-correcting technique called a Reed-Solomon code. This includes redundant blocks that can be used to reconstruct garbled bits of data.

The team tested the process by encoding the Swiss federal charter from 1291 and the Archimedes Palimpsest (a 10th-century version of ancient Greek texts), which added up to 83 kilobytes. In order to simulate aging, they kept the DNA versions of the texts at 60, 65 and 70 degrees Celsius, and they remained readable after a week. Findings were published in Angewandte Chemie.

The results suggest that data in DNA form could last 2000 years if kept at a temperature of around 10 °C. The Global Seed Vault in the Arctic could preserve it for over 2 million years at a chilly -18 °C, offering truly long-term storage.

Ideally, Grass would like to store all of the world’s current digital data, but it’s a pricey. Just to encode the 83 kilobytes of text cost around £1000. At that amount, it would cost billions to encode all of the data provided by Wikipedia. So he proposes prioritization, starting with things that will be relevant historically, is going to be key.

“If you look at how we look at the Middle Ages, it’s very influenced by what information has been stored,” he says. “It’s very important that we get a relatively neutral documentation of our current time and store that.”