The Ultimate Hard Drive


Scientists Ewan Birney and Nick Goldman selected five cultural artifacts, including the complete sonnets of Shakespeare in ASCII text and an mp3 of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, to encode into DNA. When their approach worked, they began thinking about “a fanciful application: using DNA to apocalypse-proof human culture”:

“I describe this project as being on just this side of crazy,” says Birney. “It works but isn’t commercially feasible now.” The exorbitant cost of making DNA is the biggest hold-up. For the moment, you need $220 to read each megabyte of DNA data but $12,400 to write it in the first place; however, these costs are likely to fall 100-fold within the next decade. They are also one-off investments; once data is written as DNA, it never needs to be re-written into new-fangled formats. Birney and Goldman predict that soon, DNA will be the ideal medium for storing data that you want to keep for a long time but not regularly revisit, such as wedding videos or the archives of huge science projects like the Large Hadron Collider at Cern.

Or, perhaps, all of human knowledge? Besides being universal, dense and easily copied, DNA is also incredibly stable. A recent study showed that DNA has a half-life of 521 years – that’s how long it takes for half the chemical bonds in its double helix to break. This estimate was based on DNA recovered from the 8,000-year-old leg bones of giant extinct birds called moas. But that’s nothing – these bones were preserved at 13C in New Zealand. Under gentler conditions, DNA’s shelf life last can stretch to tens of thousands of years. “For perspective, that’s all of modern human evolution,” says Birney.

(Photo by Flickr user kyz)