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All the Data on Earth Can Fit in a Cup Full of DNA. This Is MIT’s Jurassic Park-Inspired Project

  • Since the early days of computer science, scientists have been exploring the idea of using DNA to store data.

  • MIT has developed an amber-like polymer that can keep DNA intact and preserve it for a long time.

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DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the molecule of life. While there are other essential molecules for life as we know it, DNA holds a special significance because it contains the instructions that cells use to produce proteins or RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules. DNA is also responsible for genetic inheritance. However, this is far from everything DNA can be used for.

Since the early days of computing, scientists have been intrigued by the idea of using DNA to encode and store information, similar to how it functions naturally within living organisms. However, they’ve encountered challenges in manipulating DNA and preserving it over time without degradation, making it difficult to recover stored information in perfect condition.

Chemist James Banal, Jeremiah Johnson, and other scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argue that DNA is the future of data storage. They also believe that DNA’s density is so high that it’d be possible to store all the information currently contained in all the computers and servers worldwide in a coffee cup if it were filled with DNA molecules. Because of the work of these scientists, we’re now closer than ever to achieving this goal.

Michael Crichton Was Right

In Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel Jurassic Park, the premise is that dinosaur DNA can remain in good condition for millions of years inside an amber crystal. The MIT researchers have developed a polymer that can preserve DNA in a manner similar to the amber in Crichton’s novel, bringing this idea closer to reality.

MIT's technology makes it possible to preserve DNA and keep it intact for very long periods of time, allowing scientists to use it as a mass storage solution.

In an article published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the authors discuss their “T-REX” (named after the popular dinosaur, also seen in Jurassic Park) method, which enables DNA to be preserved intact for extended periods, potentially serving as a storage method for massive amounts of information or even the entire human genome.

Unlike current preservation methods that require low temperatures and high energy usage, the polymer developed by MIT allows DNA molecules to be preserved at room temperature while protecting them from heat and water to prevent degradation. To demonstrate how their innovation works, the researchers encoded the main theme of the Jurassic Park movie soundtrack and a complete human genome into DNA within their polymer, successfully recovering it without damage.

“Freezing DNA is the number one way to preserve it, but it’s very expensive, and it’s not scalable… I think our new preservation method is going to be a technology that may drive the future of storing digital information on DNA,” Banal told MIT News.

While this technology holds promise, it’s still in the early stages of development, and many innovations fail to progress beyond the lab and stablish within the industry. However, the potential of this “T-REX” technology could revolutionize storage systems in the future and one day possibly replacing solid-state drives in computers.

Image | Xataka using Midjourney

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