Scientists upgrade DNA to improve digital storage capacity

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DNA — the building blocks of life — has been eyed-up as the next form of digital storage. As file sizes get larger, massive companies have already started to max out contemporary storage capacities. With huge AI datasets and user data becoming unfathomably huge, these companies require something more.

Reported by CNET, scientists are working on a way to make DNA even more suited to data storage. While the biotech is already perfectly designed for data storage — if we can master it — we can make it even better.

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In a study published in monthly science journal Nano Letters, a collective of scientists are working on artificially upgrading the DNA double helix. Published last month, the study explains how extending DNA can turn it into the perfect data storage device.

Currently, biological deoxyribonucleic acid is comprised of four letters in the biological alphabet. These letters are A, G, C and T: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. These four letters can be combined in a multitude of ways, representing the biological makeup of every sentient being on Earth.

With this in mind, the physical double helix can be improved with an extended alphabet. In the study, seven new letters were artificially introduced. The study group believes that extending that artificially lengthening the biological alphabet can give humanity massively extended storage capacities.

"Imagine the English alphabet. If you only had four letters to use, you could only create so many words,” said study co-author Kasra Tabatabaei. “If you had the full alphabet, you could produce limitless word combinations. That's the same with DNA. Instead of converting zeroes and ones to A, G, C and T, we can convert zeroes and ones to A, G, C, T and the seven new letters in the storage alphabet."

“We tried 77 different combinations of the 11 nucleotides, and our method was able to differentiate each of them perfectly," said co-author Chao Pan. “Our method to identify different nucleotides is universal, which enables the generalizability of our approach to many other applications."

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Why would we use biological deoxyribonucleic as storage?

As Tabatabaei writes, the current digital world is creating an excessive amount of data. With petabytes of data being uploaded daily, new forms of storage are needed, and DNA is currently the best option. As for those daily petabytes, Tabatabaei explains that only a “single gram” of DNA-storage would be needed.

Additionally, this form of biotech could become the most durable form of storage ever. With scientists able to read biological data hundreds of years old, if not older, DNA-storage could allow files to last for centuries without degradation.