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DNA Code Can Store Huge Amounts Of Data In Small Space

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Jeff Ray
Jeff joined CBS 11 and TXA 21 in December 2010. He came to North T...
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If you have bought a lap top in the last few months it probably has a hard drive that can hold about a terabyte of information. The cost and capacity of hard drives have improved along a curve that follows Moore’s Law for the last several decades. The hard drives are holding more and costing less.

But hard drive storage needs a constant trickle of electricity to work. And storing them for years can get expensive. Hard drives are in computers and computers can break down.

Our station looked at the limitation of hard drives and installed a tape system called LTO; it archives the hundreds of hours of video we produce every week onto a thin magnetic tape. One cartridge can hold almost about 70 hours of high definition video.

There is a drawback to tape storage however, it has a shelf life. Gary Baker is our engineer that works on the LTO system.

It can last up to 30 years in the right environmental conditions if it’s maintained correctly”

Our station only plans to store each tape for about five years before either putting all the information on a new tape (the next generation LTO tape coming out will hold ten times more information) and putting it into a new technology.

Scientist in England are working on even better long-term storage solution using the code of biology: DNA.

Strands of DNA are mother nature’s information storage device. A human DNA strand that is about 2.5 nanometers wide (a human hair is about 20,000 nanometers wide) and around six-feet long. It contains the entire blueprint to assemble over the two trillion cells (parts) that make up a human.

In a very simple explanation the scientist are taking binary code (1’s and zeros) and translating it into the four letters used in DNA (U, C, A, G). The sequence is then used to make a synthetic DNA strand.

In theory, this strand could last for millions of year in proper storage.

The greater advantage would be its size. DNA is very small, your own strand fits inside a small part of almost every cell all curled up in a little ball. A single strand of DNA is equal to about 750 megabytes of information. A rope that is six foot long and one inch thick would equal the DNA strands of about 2.5 million people. In binary code the same 6-foot rope could also store about five billion books.

To put that in perspective, if you could store binary code in DNA stands you could store every book ever published (Google estimates that to be around 26 million books) in only about 2” of the same rope strand.

Right now the cost would make this idea unfeasible. But the cost of replicating DNA and sequencing it continues to drop.

This would also be only for a long-term storage solution. Creating and storing the information in a DNA strand would require lots of time. So would translating it back. Don’t expect to ever see this idea used in cell phones or your home computer.

But consider the possibilities. We could store all of the books in the Library of Congress in a strand of DNA that would fit in a coffee cup. Properly stored, that strand could last a few million years.

Everything mankind has ever written in books written in a code that wrote man.

Jeff Ray is the Environmental/Science Reporter at CBS 11 News. He can be reached at jaray@cbs.com

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