New DNA-based memory that can store information for over a million years

Researchers at ETH Zurich have found a method to encode and store information in the form of DNA for potentially over a million years – almost an eternity if compared with current data storage alternatives.

Researchers have designed a way of encoding information in DNA strands that could last over a million years (credit: artida/shutterstock)

Researchers have designed a way of encoding information in DNA strands that could last over a million years (credit: artida/shutterstock)

The motivation behind the research recently published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition is simple. In the digital era, a vast majority of our knowledge is stored on servers and hard drives where it can hardly survive fifty years, let alone thousands of years. So the question is: “Could we design a new method for storing information for a much longer time?”

DNA-based storage might be the answer. This technology is not entirely new. DNA lends itself to the task rather well as it can hold a large amount of data in a very compact manner. The main issue – at least until now – is the fact that the DNA-encoded data is not always error-free retrievable: gaps and corrupted information arise due to chemical degradation and mistake in DNA sequencing. Now researchers from ETH Zurich have proposed a new method to store information into DNA, error-free and over a period of over a million years. The method is quite straightforward: the information is stored in segments of DNA which are encapsulated within silica spheres, while the information itself can be retrieved via an algorithm that corrects mistakes.

The study address a well-known problem: over long periods of time, DNA undergoes significant changes as it reacts chemically with the surrounding environment. However, genetic material can still be found in fossilized bones several hundreds or thousands of years old. “Similarly to these bones, we wanted to protect the information-bearing DNA with a synthetic ‘fossil’ shell” – leading author Robert Grass explains. In order to do that the researchers encapsulated the DNA segments into silica spheres roughly 150 nm in size (a thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair). Tests simulating the conditions that would corrupt the so-stored DNA-information showed the robustness of the encapsulating method developed by the Swiss scientists.

To retrieve the information mistake-free, Reinhard Heckel from ETH Zurich’s Communication Technology Laboratory developed a scheme to correct errors based on the Reed-Solomon Codes, similar to those that are used in the transmission of data over long distances (e.g. radio communication with spacecraft). The key is adding redundant information to the actual data, explains Heckel. “In order to define a parabola, you basically need only three points. We added a further two in case one gets lost or is shifted.” The DNA-encoded data is more complex, but it works exploiting the very same principle. Even when stored in adverse conditions, the information saved for the test – Switzerland’s Federal Charter and Archimedes’ The Methods of Mechanical Theorems – could be retrieved error-free.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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