We Could Back Up The Entire Internet On A Gram Of DNA


If you think about it, DNA is basically nature’s
hard drive. You are the result of a three-dimensional
computer program, written in tiny compounds wound up inside the nucleus of all your cells. It’s a set of instructions, coded and saved
that our bodies write and read to build proteins, construct cells, and perform thousands of
other tasks. Genetic engineering is basically us trying
to hack our own hard drives, and we’re learning more about the possibilities of accomplishing
this every day. But, way back in 1964, a Soviet Physicist
named Mikhail Neiman concocted the idea that we could use the compact, efficient, storage
system of DNA to store not nature’s code but whatever we wanted! So far, we’ve been able to decypher parts
of nature’s DNA programming… a gene here, a few lines of the code there. We haven’t decoded all of this yet, but
scientists do understand how the storage system works now. Meaning, we’re real close to putting whatever
pictures or files we want into DNA-storage. I know that sounds crazy, and it is. But it’s possible. In 2013 scientists proved they could write
computer data into synthetic DNA with 0 errors! There’s a lot there, so let’s unpack that. First: They had to teach the computer to speak
DNA… Machine language is binary, zeros and ones,
while DNA is A, T, G, and C. I emailed with Bill Peck, CTO of Twist Bioscience (they make
synthetic DNA). And he explained how they convert from binary
to DNA code. Basically, like anything in tech these days,
they use an algorithm. The nice thing is, even though DNA only pairs
A with T and G with C — these letters can also be reversed, AT and TA are different
— this means the data is more dense; there’s more data in less space! The algorithm does all that translation for
them. Then they had to create a piece of DNA that
reflected the computer data. It’s the same DNA that you’d find in your
cells, but they made it in a lab. Peck described it as “similar to stacking
four colors of Lego bricks into segments.” Yes, it really is that simple. To get the data back out of the DNA, scientists
would sequence it just like they would with any other piece of DNA that showed up in a
lab. And the whole reason they want to do this
in the first place is they can put a LOT of data into a tiny space. With a bit of chemistry and a bit of computer
engineering, this synthetic DNA can store data for say — a trip to Mars, or for long-term
storage of any kind! Stretched out, the DNA molecule can be three
meters long, but wound up, it’s tiny. This alone makes it an ideal long-term storage
system. But on top of that, hard drives, CDs, flash
drives or tape backups (commonly used by major data centers) all need special climate-controlled
facilities, with constant maintenance. Meanwhile, DNA can survive with minimal effort
under a rock for millennia. A paper in Science showed a single gram of
DNA can store 215 petabytes of data. The equivalent to all the space in 420,000
of the most expensive MacBooks on the market. But Peck believes the upper limit is higher. One. Zettabyte. That is a LOT of data. It’s 1.1 trillion gigabytes. All the internet traffic in the whole world
in 2016 added up to 1.1 zettabytes. If you filled the iPhone 7 with that data,
you’d need 8.6 billion iPhones. Stacked together like dominos, they would
go around the planet 1.5 times. This could theoretically fit in ONE GRAM of
DNA. The problem is, DNA storage is just too expensive,
and takes too long right now. But while in 2013 they could encode a few
hundred kilobytes, now in 2017 we’re talking zettabytes. Someday, the molecules that make up all life
as we know it, could be storing backups of the cat videos and tweets and snaps that you
definitely didn’t save. Or storing all vital human knowledge in case
of… well, pick your favorite apocalypse. Special thanks to Twist Bioscience for their
help on this episode. And additional thanks to our sponsor, Domain
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domain names and web hosting when you use coupon code SEEKER at checkout. It’s been a few days since we started our
new look, what do you guys think? If you don’t know why we did it, watch this
video. Let us know down in the comments and if you
have a science question, drop that down there as well. Thanks for watching, please take a second
and subscribe and come fine me on Twitter @tracedominguez .

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