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Can DNA Be Utilized for Long-Term Data Archival?

With today's quest to store larger amounts of data by more efficient and reliable means, manufacturers are pushing the limits of size, capacity and viability. However, a recent team of Swiss researchers has pioneered a brand new storage medium - DNA. Since real DNA degrades too quickly to be of use in such an application, the Swiss researchers have utilized a synthetic form of DNA for the long-term archival and storage of data.


According to the researchers with ETH Zurich, one single gram of synthetic DNA is capable of holding 455 exabytes worth of data. When you consider that one exabyte equalsout to one billing gigabytes, you can begin to understand how much data is in question. To put that in an even more approachable perspective, that same gram of synthetic DNA is able to accommodate all of the data from both Facebook and Google. There would even be space leftover.

Quite understandably, the research team was not able to test out the full limits of the synthetic DNA. Instead, they used the synthetic DNA to store a copy of the Swiss Federal Charter of 1291 and the Archimedes Palimpsest - coming in at a modest 83 kilobytes in size - to demonstrate the concept.

Robert Grass, lecturer with the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich, explained the reasoning behind the initial tests. He was quoted as saying: "We wanted to preserve these documents to show not just that the method works, but that the method is important too." he said.

The biggest downside to the newest form of storage technology is the cost. As it reportedly cost the Swiss research team approximately $2,000 to transfer and store those 83 kilobytes of data, we certainly won't see synthetic DNA storage on the consumer market anytime soon. However, the tests and initial breakthrough do show a lot of promise.
Grass continued by saying: "Already the prices for human genome sequences have dropped from several millions of dollars a few years ago to just hundreds of dollars now."


One of the most common issues cited with traditional storage mediums of today is the lack of any real consistency regarding product lifespan. While there have been a number of tests performed, the life expectancy of today's storage mediums varies greatly even between manufacturers.

Conversely, Robert Grass gave his newly digitized copies of the Swiss Federal Charter of 1291 and the Archimedes Palimpsest a life expectancy of 10,000 years. If properly stored in freezing temperatures, however, Grass estimates a potential lifespan of up to one million years. His estimates are based on DNA information that has been found within fossils, some dating up to 700,000 years old.

"The time limit with DNA in fossils is about 700,000 years but people speculate about finding one-million-year storage of genomic material in fossil bones," Grass continued during an interview with CNN. "We were able to show that decay of our DNA and store of information decays at the same rate as the fossil DNA so we get to similar time frames of close to a million years."


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