Scientists store data inside DNA that could last MILLIONS of years

Scientists store data inside DNA that could last MILLIONS of years
Potential for DNA to be used for data storage has been discussed for years
But retrieving the data encoded in the genes has previously proved tricky
Inspired by fossils, researchers from Zurich encased DNA in a 'fossil shell'
They subjected these shells - or silica spheres -  to extreme temperatures
This was carried out to mimic chemical degradation seen naturally on DNA
Despite the conditions, the DNA was extracted and decoded from the silica
And if preserved in freezing temperatures, the researchers said the data has the potential to last for 'millions of years' inside DNA

By Victoria Woollaston for MailOnline

Published: 10:35 EST, 16 February 2015  | Updated: 14:57 EST, 16 February 2015 

Just one gram of DNA can store the equivalent of 14,000 Blu-ray discs.

But although the potential for DNA as an alternative to hard drives has been known about for years, it is not the most reliable and secure way to keep data safe.

The latest breakthrough could be about to change that, however.

Chemists subjected spheres of DNA to extreme temperatures designed to mimic chemical degradation and found the material - and the data stored on it - could be successfully decoded.

The research was led by Robert Grass from ETH Zurich's Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences.

'DNA lends itself to this task as it can store large amounts of information in a compact manner,' said the researchers.

'Unfortunately, the data is not always retrievable error-free: gaps and false information in the encoded data arise through chemical degradation and mistakes in DNA sequencing.

'[We] have revealed how the long-term, error-free storage of information can be achieved, potentially for more than a million years.'

In 2013, researchers demonstrated that data could be saved and read from DNA, but during tests the time between 'writing' the information and reading, or sequencing it, was relatively short.

Even during this short time, mistakes were spotted in the writing and reading of the data stored on the DNA.

Over a longer term, DNA can change significantly as it reacts chemically with the environment, and this is the biggest obstacle to using DNA as a long-term storage option.

With this in mind, Professor Grass took inspiration from fossilised bones.

Despite being thousands of years old, it is possible to obtain genetic material found within the bones.

He concluded that this DNA is protected because it is 'encapsulated and protected'.

With this in mind he devised a way to protect the information-bearing DNA with a synthetic 'fossil shell', in the same way.

His team began by encoding Switzerland's Federal Charter of 1291 and The Methods of Mechanical Theorems by Archimedes in the DNA.

The researchers then placed the DNA segments into spheres of silica with a diameter of roughly 150 nanometres.

In order to simulate the degradation of DNA over a long period of time, researchers stored it at a temperature of between 60°C (140°F) and 70°C (158°F) for up to a month.

These high temperatures replicate the chemical degradation that takes place over hundreds of years within just a few weeks.

By doing this, the researchers could compare the storage of DNA in silica glass with other common storage methods such as on impregnated filter paper and in a biopolymer. 

The DNA encapsulated in the glass shell turned out to be particularly robust and the researchers were able separate it from the shell, using a fluoride solution, and read information from it.

STORING DATA INSIDE DNA

In 2013, researchers from the European Bioinformatics Institute at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire 'downloaded' all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets on to strands of synthetic DNA.

Scientists were then able to decode the information and reproduce the words of the Bard with complete accuracy.

The same technique made it possible to store a 26-second excerpt from Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech and a photo of the Cambridgeshire laboratory where the work took place.

For their experiment, the scientists used a tiny amount of synthetic, dry DNA.

Five genetic 'letters' from the genetic code - A,C,G and T - were used to represent the zeros and ones that make up 'bytes' of digital information.

For instance, the upper case T in the word 'Thou' from the second line of Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII - 'Thou art more lovely and more temperate' - was encoded by the sequence TATAT.

The scientists then incorporated an 'error correction', similar to that found laptops and mobile phones.

This involved overlapping short strands of DNA and independently writing every million-molecule fragment of code four times.

Effectively, three back ups were created for each fragment, greatly reducing the chances of mistakes. 

This was a similar method used by Reinhard Heckel from ETH Zurich's Communication Technology Laboratory for the recent study.

And, because the silica spheres are comparable to the way DNA is protected in fossilised bones, the researchers concluded that if stored at certain temperatures, the data could survive for millions of years.

The team used the example of extremely low temperatures, such as -18° C.

By comparison, data on microfilm can be preserved only for an estimated 500 years.

As the researchers pointed out, this is not the first time DNA has been used to store information and digital data.

In 2013, researchers from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire 'downloaded' all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets on to strands of synthetic DNA.

Scientists were then able to decode the information and reproduce the words of the Bard with complete accuracy.

Dr Nick Goldman, from the EBI said: 'We already know that DNA is a robust way to store information because we can extract it from bones of woolly mammoths, which date back tens of thousands of years, and make sense of it.

The scientists then incorporated an 'error correction', similar to that found laptops and mobile phones.

This involved overlapping short strands of DNA and independently writing every million-molecule fragment of code four times.

Effectively, three back ups were created for each fragment, greatly reducing the chances of mistakes. 

This was a similar method used by Reinhard Heckel from ETH Zurich's Communication Technology Laboratory for the recent study. 

The researchers from EBI stressed that the DNA used was wholly artificial and different to the genetic molecules of life, and if it was added to a human body, it would degrade and be disposed of.

Currently the technology is restricted by the length of time it takes to sequence DNA and its high cost - around £8,000 ($12,300) per megabyte of stored material.

Even so, DNA-based storage could today be cost effective for archives of several megabytes over long time periods of 600 to 5,000 years, computer models predict. 

A DNA archive also requires no constant supply of electric power like hard discs do.  



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