Could DNA be the future of digital preservation?

Genetic scientists in Britain overnight, have successfully demonstrated the data-storage potential of DNA, as explained in The Conversation today.

In a proof-of-concept experiment, a string of DNA with a physical size around that of a grain of dust, was encoded with an MP3 file of the ‘I have a dream’ speech of Dr Martin Luther King, a photo, a pdf of the 1953 paper that first described the structure of DNA, as well as the entire sonnets of Shakespeare. Critically however, the speck of DNA was sent via post to the US, where it was decoded and found to be an exact digital copy of the input.

The benefit of using DNA, besides the mind-blowing data space potential, is that it can be freeze-dried and stored for a very long time without any loss of information. In fact the encoding procedure utilises the built-in redundancy in DNA; the replication of data in multiple strings, like a biological RAID array, making it very unlikely that the same information will be lost in all strings.

Sequencing DNA still takes a couple of weeks at the least, and both encoding and decoding are unsurprisingly expensive, although costs are predicted to come down quite dramatically over the next 20 years or so.

Even so, the potential of this technology for the perpetual and secure storage of our cultural heritage is obvious, and digital preservation of linguistic and ethnological materials such as PARADISEC contains, would be a very suitable use of this technology, given that we aim to store and preserve digital objects for a very long time.

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