Home / Blog / A future proof solution? Look back 3.8 billion years

A future proof solution? Look back 3.8 billion years

A computer rendering of DNA base sequences, each base a colour (adenosine, cytosine, guanine, thymine). Associate each couple of bases thyamine-adenosine and cytosine – guanine with the values 0 and 1 and you have a storage device. Image credit: David Parker/GETTY IMAGES

When I started working, back in 1971, magnetic tapes where seen as a magic form of data storage. One could store an unbelievable 1.1 MB of data! At that time the alternative was storing data on paper tapes… This very old technology (in Moore’s clock reference) has kept improving, although for most of us it has disappeared from sight Today’s a mag tape reel can store up to  15 TB, that is an improvement of 14 million times over those first mag tapes.

As a matter of fact most bits on the Planet are stored in mag tapes with a single robotised mag tape storage holding as much as 278 PB. Would you rather store those data on disks. Well, you would need close to 400 million of them, piled up they would create a tower 476km high.

Yet, the speed at which we are creating data (4.4. ZB in 2015, 160 ZB expected in 2025), and store them (we end up storing just a minimal part of the data being created, even though we often store several copies of them) is growing by 30-40% a year and the availability of Artificial Intelligence that “feeds” on data further pushes companies (and later in the next decades private people) to store more and more data ’cause “you never know”.

Now, that’s not a problem, is it? We have plenty of storage around and storage technology keeps evolving increasing capacity and decreasing cost. Well, not actually. Any (physical) exponential growth eventually reaches a limit beyond which it cannot continue. This is true for storage capacity as well and it is expected that silicon based storage will reach that limit in 2040, and along with it our capability of storing data. Hence the need to look for an alternative.

Among the alternative considered there is the oldest storage mechanism Nature invented some 3.8 billion years ago, the DNA. DNA is the way used by nature to store information on the manufacturing of protein (and when to manufacture them), that is how to create and sustain life. It is a storage medium that has proven its viability and resilience, it is extremely compact and can resist thousands of years, well beyond the life of the individual it made possible. One single gram of DNA has a theoretical capacity of 252 PB (almost as many PB as a full robotic mag tape storage holding) and scientist have already demonstrated technology reaching a density of 215PB per gram (DNA Fountain).

DNA based storage would be great in terms of both density and resilience. Whilst today’s mag tapes need to be re-recorded every 10 years you would need to re-record a DNA storage every 10,000 years.

The problem with DNA is cost and the time it takes to store and read data. The cost today for storing a 3 minutes song would be around 300,000$, a tad on the expensive side. And reading that song data to play it may take several hours. New companies like Catalog are addressing these two issues and they are not alone. Big companies like Microsoft are also at work exploring how DNA storage can be turned into reality.

Isn’t it nice to think that our future may be rooted in something that Nature invented 3.8 billion years ago?

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.