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Novel system stores, retrieves digital images in DNA

18 Apr 2016

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University of Washington and Microsoft researchers have developed a technique that could shrink the space needed to store digital data that today would fill a Walmart super centre down to the size of a sugar cube.

In a paper presented in April at the ACM International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems, the team of computer scientists and electrical engineers detailed one of the first complete systems to encode, store and retrieve digital data using DNA molecules, which can store information millions of times more compactly than current archival technologies.

Novel storage system

Figure 1: Digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10,000Gbytes) can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube. (Tara Brown Photography/University of Washington)

Authors of the paper are UW computer science and engineering doctoral student James Bornholt, UW bioengineering doctoral student Randolph Lopez, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering Luis Ceze, UW associate professor of electrical engineering and of computer science and engineering Georg Seelig, and Microsoft researchers and UW CSE affiliate faculty Doug Carmean and Karin Strauss.

In one experiment outlined in the paper, the team successfully encoded digital data from four image files into the nucleotide sequences of synthetic DNA snippets. More significantly, they were also able to reverse that process, retrieving the correct sequences from a larger pool of DNA and reconstructing the images without losing a single byte of information.

The team has also encoded and retrieved data that authenticates archival video files from the UW's Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal project that contain interviews with judges, lawyers and other personnel from the Rwandan war crime tribunal.

Lee Organick

Figure 2: Lee Organick, a UW computer science and engineering research scientist, mixes DNA samples for storage. Each tube contains a digital file, which might be a picture of a cat or a Tchaikovsky symphony. (Tara Brown Photography/University of Washington)

"Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works, it's very, very compact and very durable," said Ceze, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering.

"We're essentially re-purposing it to store digital data (pictures, videos, documents) in a manageable way for hundreds or thousands of years."

The digital universe, all the data contained in our computer files, historic archives, movies, photo collections and the exploding volume of digital information collected by businesses and devices worldwide, is expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020.

That's a tenfold increase compared to 2013, and will represent enough data to fill more than six stacks of computer tablets stretching to the moon. While not all of that information needs to be saved, the world is producing data faster than the capacity to store it.

DNA molecules can store information many millions of times more densely than existing technologies for digital storage: flash drives, hard drives, magnetic and optical media. Those systems also degrade after a few years or decades, while DNA can reliably preserve information for centuries. DNA is best suited for archival applications, rather than instances where files need to be accessed immediately.

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