How light and DNA can solve the world’s data problem

For the first time, we use light-dependent chemistry to store a file in DNA. This may be the solution to get a grip on the deluge of digital data.

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DNA synthesis in Austria, processing and sequencing in Switzerland, the code from Germany and the USA. This collaborative work reflects the nature of data: distributed and international. It also shows that taming of the masses of zeros and ones is interdisciplinary and a team effort.

The amount of digital data in our society will reach a point where conventional archival storage formats are too expensive to be maintained in the current fashion. DNA-based data storage has the potential to carry a technological leap into the next generation of archival storage systems with its many intrinsic advantages. After millions of years of evolution, nucleic acids are currently the hereditary material used by all living things to supply blueprints on how they are built. Its spectacular information density allows for raw medium capacities in the Exabyte scale while occupying merely a spoonful of material. Also, reading technologies are becoming faster and more affordable by the day.

Given these extraordinary properties, it is justified to call DNA-based data storage a true alternative to existing methods. Currently, however, the potential of this exceptional material is hampered by a prohibitively high writing cost. Until now, DNA has been produced on complex synthesis platforms that require specially fabricated parts. Precise pumping and intricate sample holders enable good quality but also drive up the price. Here lies the most challenging issue that will significantly determine its success.

A method that could balance quality and cost is photolithographic synthesis of DNA. This approach is much cheaper than conventional DNA synthesis, but more error-prone. However, in contrast to use in biological research, DNA sequences don’t have to be error-free for data storage purposes. By using sophisticated error correction codes similar to the ones used in traditional digital data storage, higher error rates can be tolerated without information loss.

Picture of the light-directed DNA Synthesizer used in this work.

The process uses light-activated DNA building blocks that are delivered in a flow cell to a functionalized glass slide to grow the DNA chains and was used in a proof of concept to store the sheet music of a Mozart composition.

There is still a wide gap between today’s research and prototypes and a product that can compete with conventional storage systems. However, the good scalability and lower complexity, together with the fast ongoing progress in chemistry and hardware substantiate this writing technology as a promising approach for the future of archival storage.

Illustration by Katharina Conrad

Philipp Antkowiak

PhD Student, ETH Zurich

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