• 09.13.12

Want To Keep Data Forever? Save It As DNA

A new book encoded in DNA (and readable by a DNA sequencer) will last for a long, long time. And its format will never become obsolete.

“Save.” The word has come to mean storing digital information forever. The reality is such “saved” information deteriorates every second–either from the creeping obsolescence of old technology (floppy disks anyone?), or physical degradation of the storage medium itself. Yet there is a way to store data that will never go out of style because it’s transcribed in the billions-year-old language of life itself: DNA.


Harvard University molecular geneticist George Church has transcribed an entire 304-page book he wrote, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, into the four-letter genetic alphabet in spiral helixes. In his study published in Science, Church and his co-authors describe their strategy to encode arbitrary digital information into DNA–words, images, and even bits of JavaScript from his e-book–into a 5.27-megabit DNA copy, readable using next-generation DNA sequencing.

The efficiency of their technique is remarkable: “A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet,” Church told the Wall Street Journal.

DNA data storage has been done before. But this was the first time such a feat was attempted on such a large scale in a test tube, not a living cell, where the information can remain for centuries (potentially) in readable form. It’s not as cost-effective as commercial data-storage mediums yet (maybe in five to 10 years as the cost of DNA sequencing technology continues to drop), but the demand for nearly incorruptible data storage is pressing.

A U.S. House of Representatives report in the 1990s found a “number of cases of significant digital records that had already been lost or were in serious jeopardy of being lost,” according to the Council on Library and Information Resources.

“In a very real sense, digital documents exist only by virtue of software that understands how to access and display them,” states the report. ” They come into existence only by virtue of running this software.” With DNA, we may always have the latest version.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.