For as much as we rely on hard drives and the Internet to store information, these methods are largely inadequate for long-term data storage. Not only are standard hard disks susceptible to being damaged by everything from heat and moisture to magnetic fields and general wear and tear, but they only have a shelf life of a few decades even if kept in good condition.
There may be an unusual solution, however, and it comes in the form of DNA. A team of researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have developed an innovative new technique for storing large amounts of data in genetic code that could remain secure for millions of years, reports Gizmag.
Though it sounds far-fetched, DNA is actually capable of storing an immense amount of data (one living cell is capable of carrying a million gigabytes!). Genetic material can also be preserved for a long time if encased in the proper way. Fossils that retain DNA are a good example.
Taking fossilization as inspiration, the Swiss researchers have developed a way of writing digital information on DNA and then encapsulating it in a protective layer of glass. For the test run, Switzerland's Federal Charter of 1291 — the official document that originally bound Switzerland as a unified region — and Archimede’s The Methods of Mechanical Theorems, were encoded inside DNA segments. Taken together, the data represented about 83 kilobytes of information. Then the DNA was encapsulated inside 150-nanometer silica spheres to protect it.
The resultant silica-encased DNA was then subjected to a series of harsh processes that simulate age-related degradation, and it was then tested to see if the data could still be read.
"After storing the DNA for a simulated 10,000 years in the fridge at 4 °C [40 °F], about 80 percent of the sequences contain at least one error and about 8 percent of the sequences are completely lost," Dr. Robert Grass, from the Swiss team, told Gizmag. "Still... we are able to decode the data without final error."
Based on this experiment, researchers were also able to determine how long the data would remain preserved if it had been stored at even lower temperatures. At 0 degrees °F, they calculated that the data could have survived for more than a million years, which is far superior to any other data storage method currently in use.
The only real obstacle to this method is the cost; manipulating DNA is an expensive process. But as the research advances, that cost should gradually drop.
"We are currently looking into decreasing the cost of writing information into DNA... and into first commercial applications in storing highly valuable information," said Grass.
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