Scientists look to DNA for digital storage

Malcolm Ritter / The Associated Press /

Published Jan 25, 2013 at 04:00AM

NEW YORK — It can store the information from a million CDs in a space no bigger than your little finger, and could keep it safe for centuries.

Is this some new electronic gadget? Nope. It’s DNA.

Researchers reported this week that they had stored all 154 Shakespeare sonnets, a photo, a scientific paper, and a 26-second sound clip from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That all fit in a barely visible bit of DNA in a test tube.

The process involved converting the ones and zeroes of digital information into the four-letter alphabet of DNA code. That code was used to create strands of synthetic DNA. Then machines “read” the DNA molecules and recovered the encoded information. That reading process took two weeks, but technological advances are driving that time down, said Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, England. He’s an author of a report published online by the journal Nature.

DNA could be useful for keeping huge amounts of information that must be kept for a long time but not retrieved very often, the researchers said. Storing the DNA would be relatively simple, they said: Just put it in a cold, dry and dark place and leave it alone.