Elite flash drive
Will DNA become an alternative information carrier?
Ilya Manukhov, Forbes, 13.03.2017
It is possible to write 60 times more information into the gene chain than on today's carriers. However, due to the high cost and much faster development of IT technologies, it is unlikely that we will copy audio or photos into DNA
Employees of Columbia University and the Genome Center in New York have developed a new technology for recording information in DNA. With the help of it, scientists managed to encode and read 2.14 megabytes of information in the form of DNA oligonucleotides. They contained an Amazon gift card, the KolibriOS operating system, an article by Shannon about transmitting information in a noisy channel, a video file "Arrival of the Train" by the Lumiere brothers, and even a computer virus. The final physical density of the record was 215,000,000 gigabytes per gram of nucleic acid. It would seem that humanity has taken another step towards another information revolution. But is this really the case? What are the advantages and disadvantages of DNA as a carrier of information?
100500 gigabytes in one molecule
The information capabilities of DNA became known immediately after the discovery of its structure in 1953. Scientists realized that if you quickly learn to synthesize and read DNA, you can record a large amount of information in a small volume. However, the order of magnitude was established only in the 80s - after the dimensions of the DNA itself were established.
How much information can be recorded on DNA? One revolution of the DNA helix in the B-form is about 10 pairs of nucleotides. Coding will be one of the threads because the second is always complimentary to the first. Thus, we have 10 cells, each of which can have one of the four letters (A, T, G and C). When using quaternary or double–binary encoding, the encoding density of information in DNA is two bits per cell, i.e. 20 bits per revolution of the spiral, the linear size of which is approximately 3.4 nanometers (volume ~ 11 cubic nanometers) is what can be written. Is it a lot or a little?
With the existing physical principles today, it is possible to create processors in which 1 bit is recorded at 10 nanometers. Thus, in DNA, based on linear dimensions, it is possible to write about 60 times more information. But most likely it will end quickly, because Intel and TSMC are already working on creating a processor in which 1 bit of information will be recorded at 5 nanometers. The advantage of storing information in the form of DNA in volume is coming to naught with the development of 3D NAND technologies of multilayer flash memory. And this is not the limit, taking into account the quantum computers coming on the heels. So does it make sense to record photos, texts and other information encoded in a bit language in DNA if computer technology is ahead of the curve?
The ability to record information on DNA is likely to play a role, but only in some specific things where it is not possible to make processors on the basis that we are used to - semiconductors or magnetic optical carriers. This will be a situation where it simply does not work out any other way, for example, in the case of some tricky biological constructions.
Expensive, but very durable
One of the main advantages of DNA as a carrier of information is durability. Paper media and hard drives noticeably lose DNA, which can be extracted from the bones of organisms that died millions of years ago, and then read the information. Especially if it was stored in suitable conditions, such as permafrost, for example, or in a desert underground without oxygen (it is believed that even in ideal conditions DNA cannot be preserved for more than 1 million years – VM). Calcium fossils, perhaps, are stored better than DNA. It may partially collapse or be modified, but taking into account the multiple repeatability, decryption will be possible. Therefore, if a person, for example, has the task of preserving information about the planet, which should lie for a long time, then DNA will cope with it as well as possible. But so far such plans are only at the level of fantasy stories – a race that was forced to die preserved genetic material and then this race was restored by reading the information.
To date, DNA synthesis is still very expensive, so you will have to pay about 3.5 thousand dollars for a megabyte of data recorded on a DNA "flash drive". If you compare it with a CD recording, then the figure seems sky-high. But on the other hand, if you want to save information in the universe and choose CDs for this, you will spend a certain amount on recording each disc. DNA is synthesized once, and its reproduction is a very cheap reaction. This is comparable to how much time an author spends to compose a book, and it is already relatively easy to print many copies of it. It's the same here.
It is possible that the technology of DNA synthesis and reading information from it can be used even at home – now the technologies are wide enough to do this. Imagine that you have a small device at home, you take a test tube, put it in a device in which everything is already prepared and record the necessary information in a matter of seconds. But such technologies as "elusive Joe" – no one can catch, because in fact, no one needs. There are simpler things for recording digital information, for example, computer media that are already familiar to us. Most likely, computer technologies will go far ahead, since they have not yet exhausted their resources to reduce the cell, and the creation of multi-layer flash memory is just beginning. In the case of DNA, the cell will not become smaller than the nucleotide. Therefore, the use of DNA as a data carrier is likely to be limited to scientific research and biotechnological applications.
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