Why Data Stored as DNA Won’t Go Out of Style

Whether it’s a sixty year-old unemployment system written in Cobol or a data warehouse on its last legs, every enterprise grapples with legacy technology. What’s worse, every technology will eventually become legacy, regardless of how vibrant it looks today. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if there was a technology that would be viable as long as humans are around to use it? 

During a recent webinar on DNA computing, I described DNA-based data storage as future-proof. Some of the attendees pushed back on this idea and I wanted to explore it here. 

DNA data storage is based on two families of technologies and processes: DNA synthesis and DNA sequencing. Sequencing gets most of the attention in the press, typically around the falling prices to sequence a genome. On the other side of the DNA story, synthesis is the process of creating DNA either through a biological process or in a lab. In the context of DNA computing, DNA synthesis is used to write strands of synthetic DNA that represent your data. Those strands are sequenced to read the data, which is then converted back into its digital form. The figure below attempts to illustrate this. 

These two key technologies, sequencing and synthesis, will continue improving because they are essential to life sciences. The need for them to become faster and cheaper is constant. But whether synthetic or organic, they’re still just working with DNA. There’s little risk that we’ll create a DNA 2.0 that isn’t backwards compatible with current and future sequencing and synthesis technologies. After all, those are the technologies we’d use to create that new version.

As long as there are humans around to read it, DNA-based data storage is the only future-proof storage technology we’re likely to discover.* This, coupled with its incredible storage density of 200PB/gram and a half-life of 500 years, makes DNA storage one of the most compelling technologies in development. 

*This doesn’t mean that the data your storing as DNA can’t be damaged. High temperatures and ultraviolet light degrade DNA over time, so you’ll still need to take some precautions to ensure fidelity.