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April 11, 2016

Storage Approach Mimics DNA in Fossils

George Leopold

Researchers in Switzerland focusing on biological storage mechanisms say they have demonstrated a way to store and retrieve data in the form of genetic material.

Investigators at ETH Zurich sought to leverage DNA’s ability to store large amounts of information in a compact way while overcoming errors encountered in retrieving data due to chemical degradation and mistakes in DNA sequencing. To overcome gaps and false information in encoded data, they encapsulated segments of DNA where information was stored in silica, or glass. They then used an algorithm to correct mistakes in stored data.

The technique is being promoted as a new way to store huge amounts of data over very long periods of time, mimicking the way DNA is preserved in fossils. The requirement for long-term storage is growing as data saved on hard drives and servers becomes increasingly difficult to access, the researchers noted. They predict nothing less than error-free storage of data for more than 1 million years.

The storage research was inspired by the fact that genetic material has been found in fossilized bones hundreds of thousands of years old. While DNA can changes significantly as it reacts chemically with the environment, the researchers realized that material isolated in fossils is often protected and can be analyzed.

“Similar to these bones, we wanted to protect the information-bearing DNA with a synthetic ‘fossil’ shell,” noted Robert Grass, lead researcher and lecturer in ETH Zurich’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences.

DNA was encapsulated in silica spheres, and then stored for up to a month at up to 70 degrees C (158 degrees F) to replicate conditions that would occur over hundreds of years. DNA encapsulated in glass was found to retain more data.

The other challenge is error-free reading of preserved data. The researchers leveraged advances in DNA sequencing technology to begin reading stored data. Since errors persist in data stored in genetic material, they developed an error-correction scheme based on Reed-Solomon codes. The codes are widely used to correct errors in a variety of storage devices as well as in spacecraft communications.

Using this method, the researches attached additional information in the form of backup functions to the actual stored data. The added data was used in the event one data point was lost or shifted. When stored in adverse conditions, the information saved in the DNA storage test was retrieved without error, the researchers claimed.

The researchers’ paper, “Robust Chemical Preservation of Digital Information on DNA in Silica with Error-Correcting Codes,” can be accessed here.

Meanwhile, other DNA data storage efforts are focusing on the underlying chemistry as a way to reduce error rates. “The change in their structural dimensions and instability is a big challenge for the data storage with least error rate,” according to another researcher commenting on the DNA storage demonstration.

“At the same time, those properties can be utilized to make the process [more] favorable.”

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