We interact with and store data all the time in our daily lives. Activities from streaming movies at home to saving projects at work are all data-driven. Data usage and storage needs have gone up tremendously over the last decade due to our data-dependent lifestyles. More and more companies are focusing on data analysis to make informed decisions. (1) Big data, like the name suggests, is the large volume of data companies generate everyday through normal business procedures. As companies continue to gather data, their need for storage space increases as well. According to Seagate, we’ve stored 33 zettabytes in 2018 - this is equivalent to 33 trillion gigabytes. If you think that’s crazy, they’ve also forecasted this number to go up to 175 zettabytes in 2025. (2)
Evidently, our data storage usage is increasing at a rapid rate and current storage methods are already struggling to keep up. The shift from personal storage to the use of cloud storage services, the influx of data centres, and the constant hard drive improvements over the years have accommodated our needs for the time being.
However, our current methods have major downsides, such as: being terrible for the environment due to high energy consumption (3), being vulnerable to cybercrime, and being tough to scale up any further due to physical constraints. (1) Our need for more storage is never-ending and we’ll eventually require more efficient and cheaper storage innovations if we are to keep up with the current trends in a sustainable way.
DNA storage or Molecular Information Storage (MIST) is one way to store significantly more data. DNA itself is comprised of four main components: Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine, and Guanine. Data can be stored within strands of DNA by manipulating the order of these molecules like how we arrange traditional computer code into zeroes and ones. Rearranging, copying, and creating new strands of DNA has already been possible for a while. (5) Microsoft recently announced that they’ve been able to convert the four components into a format readable by computers. (4) The next step is to be able to search for the data in DNA after it has been stored.
The reason DNA storage may be the solution to our impending data storage apocalypse is because of its extremely efficient storage capacity. Theoretically, our global storage needs for a year could be satisfied with a 1 meter cube of DNA. (5) This would be an extremely big jump in storage efficiency as large datacenters could be replaced by DNA storage devices the size of dice. Furthermore, DNA itself is extremely stable and doesn’t require much power to maintain. We have routinely been able to read the DNA of fossils that are hundreds of thousands years old. (5) This makes the format perfect for long term storage and archiving data.
However, the practicality of these ventures is still a major concern as these are unprecedented technologies and combine very different fields of study. Methods to effectively replicate modern hard drives using DNA is still a long ways off as many core features of modern hard drives are not even functional using this new platform.
What This Means
What this might mean for consumers is a completely different way to store their data. Instead of buying additional hard drives for your computer every so often, you may be able to buy DNA drives large enough to satisfy your storage needs for decades. Additionally, data storage could become so cheap, that you may be able to buy petabytes (one million gigabytes) of data storage as easily as you can buy terabytes (one thousand gigabytes) today. Similarly, businesses could start switching to in house DNA storage systems for all of their documents instead of the traditional cloud storage services and data centres we see today.
However, it’s too early to determine what form the end product of DNA storage will take for the general public. While DNA storage is still years off from being obtainable by the average consumer or business, there is no doubt that this concept will greatly change the way we store data forever.
Microsoft's DNA Storage Demonstration
- “Data Crisis on the Horizon- Why we Need to Rethink Data Storage.” Techopedia, https://www.techopedia.com/data-crisis-on-the-horizon-why-we-need-to-rethink-data-storage/2/33777
- “The Digitization of the World From Edge to Core” Seagate, https://www.seagate.com/files/www-content/our-story/trends/files/idc-seagate-dataage-whitepaper.pdf
- “Eco-Karma: How Climate Change is Harming Data Infrastructure” Techopedia, https://www.techopedia.com/eco-karma-how-climate-change-is-harming-data-infrastructure/2/33479
- “Microsoft is Using DNA to Solve our Impending Data Storage Crisis.” PCmag, https://www.pcmag.com/news/367342/microsoft-is-using-dna-to-solve-our-impending-data-storage-c
- “DNA Data Storage is Closer Than You Think.” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/dna-data-storage-is-closer-than-you-think/