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Scientists Stored Digital Images Inside DNA, Then Retrieved Them

Nature has a better solution than CDs and floppy disks.
All the digital data from more than 600 smartphones can be stored in the pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube. Photo: Tara Brown Photography/University of Washington

We're producing reams of digital data, but finding a place to put it all—the cat videos, the unfinished novels, and yes, banking information and medical records—is a challenge. All this data is expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020, according to the University of Washington, and would fill more than six stacks of iPads stretching to the moon.

Storing a lot of information is a problem that nature solved a long time ago, in every molecule of DNA. Scientists have been trying to store our digital data in DNA, too: one idea, for example, involves storing all of Wikipedia in a forest of trees.


In a new paper, a team from the University of Washington and Microsoft describe how they managed to encode, store, and (crucially) retrieve digital data in DNA molecules. In the experiment, they encoded digital data from four image files into the nucleotide sequences of synthetic DNA snippets, which can be dehydrated for long-term storage.

Photos were selected because "they use a lot of space," Luis Ceze, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, told Motherboard.

"DNA is a fantastic information storage molecule that life has developed," he continued, and it's much more compact than anything we currently use. According to Ceze, it would take a warehouse about the same size as a Walmart superstore to stash the same amount of digital data that can be contained in a DNA-based system the size of "a few sugar cubes."

What's important is that they didn't only manage to store the information, but to retrieve it later, reconstructing the images without losing even one byte of information.

Even better, if the DNA is dehydrated and properly stored, Ceze said, it can last a really, really long time—maybe thousands of years—unlike those scratched-up old CDs that won't even play in your car stereo anymore.