Sunday, 21 September 2014

DNA, the new way of storing Information

Our information databases are growing bigger and bigger and we are running out of storage space. Currently, there is a total of around 3 zettabytes (10²¹ bytes)  of digital information in the world. This takes up quite a lot of space but with new technologies, we could store all of that information in the back of a lorry.

Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) near Cambridge, had the idea of using DNA to encode information and therefore, store it. The plan at first, was to use the 4 different “bases” in DNA -adenosine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G) and have say, A and T represent 0 and C and G represent 1 so the code used would be the same as the one used in computers and other electronic devices. The problem was that it sometimes formed repetition of a single base and this could generate problems when reading it so it was decided to use a ternary system instead of a binary one. This means that the numerals 0,1 and 2 are used and this time, every base has a different number depending on the base that was just used as shown on the table:

This has been tried out quite successfully with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and a pdf about DNA. Unfortunately, DNA synthesising machines are not yet reliable so information has to be stored in many different chunks. Another downside is that this information takes very long to read but, hopefully, we will find a solution for that in the future. Furthermore, it is far more expensive than storing information on magnetic tape but it can store it for thousands of years without degrading like the magnetic tape would, after all, archeologists have been able to get information from DNA thousands of years old.

This was researched and written by  Isabel Lammers when she was in 3rd ESO and now is a 4th ESO student.

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