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  • Writer's pictureVedant Parikh

Lab Notes on: DNA Microcapsules & Data Storage

Anika Ajgaonkar's notes on a novel, biology-based method of storing data!

 

By rough estimates, it is said that some 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. On a daily basis, humans are producing over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, or about 1.7MB per second per person on Earth. But with our data growing exponentially, we are facing an increasingly difficult challenge of how to store it. Sooner than later, available storage reserves for this data will no longer be sufficient to contain it. However, researchers and scientists at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands have proposed a fascinating yet highly efficient solution: DNA data centers that store the world’s data with the bases A, T, C, and G, rather than 0’s and 1’s in a hard drive. And this will be facilitated through the use of a novel technology: DNA microcapsules.

Though the idea of using DNA bases for data storage first came out in the 1980s, it only actualized 30 years later, when DNA synthesis began gaining popularity and the cost of such processes was significantly reduced. Essentially, to store data in these centers, synthetic DNA bases will be strung together in a specific order to produce unique DNA strands. Existing files and photos stored in data centers can then be transferred to be stored in DNA. The biggest hurdle in this process, however, is reading the stored data. This technique is only capable of archival storage. Reading stored data is an expensive task, so frequent consultation of the DNA files is not preferable. The challenge emerges from the flawed technique used to do so at the moment, a PCR method known as “random access,” highly prone to mistakes.


PCR, short for Polymerase Chain Reaction, is a data synthesizing process that can replicate millions of copies from just a small piece of DNA by adding a primer with the necessary DNA code.

With the current method, only one file can be read at a time, and the data quality of each file deteriorates too greatly after each reading of a file, which means the process is not scalable.


To read many different files at the same time, multiple primer pairs would be needed to do this work simultaneously, but this also introduces many errors in the replication process. However, the work of Professor Tom De Greef and his team at the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS) at TU Eindhoven could prevent this entirely through the creation of DNA microcapsules.


Each capsule is filled with proteins and a polymer, and one file is anchored per capsule. At a temperature of over 50 degrees Celsius, the capsules seal themselves, which means that when PCR occurs (a heat-intensive process that switches between different temperature cycles), it will be in isolated sections, plummeting the chance of error. De Greef refers to this as “thermo-confined PCR.” At the moment, it can read 25 files simultaneously with marginal error. When the temperature is lowered, the copies separate from the capsule while the original anchored file is intact, so the quality of the original file is not compromised. After three reads with this method, the deterioration is just 0.3 percent, as opposed to 35 percent without the use of microcapsules.


These massive amounts of data, stored in a DNA library of sorts, can easily be searched using fluorescence. Individual files are given a unique fluorescent label and every capsule has a unique color, which a device can distinguish and select on command, perhaps in the future with a robotic arm. The numerous advantages this technique would provide are what makes it so appealing: DNA files are much more compact to store, and the data’s lifespan is also much longer. Energy-sucking data centers would no longer be needed once this technology is available on a larger scale.


The first data center is expected to start full operations in approximately five to ten years, once the costs of DNA synthesis fall even further. DNA has always been the universe’s best and simplest form of data storage for the genetic code, and it is the perfect time for us to learn from its example as we advance further into the digital age.

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