DNA storage

DNA storage: a new method for storing digital information

There is a lot of digital information in the world — about three zettabytes’ worth (that’s 3000 billion billion bytes) — and the constant influx of new digital content poses a real challenge for archivists. Hard disks are expensive and require a constant supply of electricity, while even the best ‘no-power’ archiving materials such as magnetic tape degrade within a decade. This is a growing problem in the life sciences, where massive volumes of data (including DNA sequences) make up the fabric of the scientific record. One solution is to use DNA: a compact, robust molecule, as a storage medium. We call this DNA digital data storage, or DNA storage.

The code

Our group developed a code to translate the zeroes and ones that make up digital files into As, Cs, Gs and Ts — the letters that correspond to the basic components of DNA. It might not seem like such a hard thing to do, but we had to use some other rules to make sure the experiment would work, such as requiring that the new, alphabetic code would not have any repeats. Repeating letters in the code could confuse the machines that write and read DNA. We also had to work out how to break each message into many pieces (since humans can only reliably create DNA fragments about 200 letters long), sort them out and put them back together again when they are read. We had to do all this in a manner that could recover the information perfectly, even when there were inevitable writing and reading errors.

This coded information can be fed into DNA synthesis machines, which transforms it into the physical material in much the same way an inkjet printer lays down ink on paper. What you get in the end is an almost imperceptible smidgen of dust, which itself contains thousands of DNA copies of the encoded files. Because DNA is so robust, the material will last for many thousands of years if it is kept safe, dry and cool. DNA sequencing machines can be used to read the files back.

The Davos challenge: Can you crack the code?

Bitcoin Nick Goldman presented our work on DNA-storage at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos on 21 January 2015. You can see his presentation here. As part of this presentation, he set a challenge. Test tubes containing samples of DNA encoding 1 Bitcoin (1 BTC or 1 ฿) were distributed to the audience. The first person to sequence (read) the DNA and decode the files it contains can take possession of the Bitcoin.

You can 'see' the prize Bitcoin by clicking this link. You need to decode the DNA sample to find its "private key" before you can claim ownership.

You will need: a sample of DNA, access to a DNA sequencing machine, and an understanding of how the code works (see this Technical Report for a full explanation).

The Davos Bitcoin Challenge will close on 21 January 2018 if the prize has not been claimed before that date.