Who needs memory cards when you have DNA? A team of scientists has been able to store images within the life-defining molecules then retrieve them perfectly.

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Researchers from the University of Washington have been working out how to take digital files and convert them into strings of DNA that can be easily read back. Luis Ceze, one of the researchers, explains in a press release:

“Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works — it’s very, very compact and very durable. We’re essentially repurposing it to store digital data — pictures, videos, documents — in a manageable way for hundreds or thousands of years.”

To do it, they first have to convert ones and zeroes that make up a digital file using the four basic building blocks of DNA— adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. Sounds easy enough, but much of the researchers’ time has been spent working out how to squeeze as much data into as short a string as possible without any errors.

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That’s done using Huffman coding, a fairly normal approach for lossless data compression. You can read more detail about it in the researchers’ paper, but the results look a little like this:

Once the team’s determined how to represent a file, they then synthesize artificial DNA based on their calculations. It’s the pink stuff in the tube above, but it can equally be dehydrated so that it can be stored for use at a later time.

Reading the data is made easier by distinctive markers that the team place within the strands of DNA. The team can sequences the sample, then use these markers to finds the starting point of a file. Then they simply read back the combination of adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine, use the Huffman coding to convert it back into digital data and—voila!—the files is restored.

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The team has shown that they can successfully encode—and then retrieve— the images you see at the top of the page, but they suggest that they can go much further, storing video, audio and any other kind of digital file. In a press release, they claim that it could be possible to “shrink the space needed to store digital data that today would fill a Walmart supercenter down to the size of a sugar cube.” Impressive.

But don’t throw your hard drives out just yet. The technique is currently expensive, requiring some serious lab kit to synthesize the DNA and recover the data from it. But if that can be made affordable, DNA data storage could help us file away the vast amounts of information we continue to generate.

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[University of Washington]