Long-Term (Millennia) Data Storage Using Plants?

Helix cloud contrail spotted near moscow russia december 24 2012 2A DNA Cloud?

In the recent (and brilliant) Richard Powers novel Orfeo, composer Peter Els attempts to encode a digital rendition of one of his musical compositions into a strand of DNA, then splice it into the genome of a living cell. This, he hopes, will perpetuate his music for all eternity.

Science fiction?

Maybe not….

In January, 2013, a multidisciplinary study in synthetic biology demonstrated a system for the DNA-based storage of digital information. (see Ref. 1 below)

The project, led by Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) at Hinxton, UK, marks another step towards using nucleic acids as a practical way of storing information — one that is more compact and durable than current media such as hard disks or magnetic tape.” (From: Synthetic double-helix faithfully stores Shakespeare’s sonnets.)

Researchers have already developed software that makes it “easy” to store digital data on DNA.

DNAcloud: “A Potential Tool for storing Big Data on DNA.

From the DNAcloud website:
“…we have been able to develop a software called ‘DNA Cloud’ that can convert the data file to DNA and vice versa. You can send the output to any biotech company and they will send you the synthetic DNA that you can store in your refrigerator.
The software ‘DNA Cloud’ will encode the data file in any format (.text, .pdf, .png, .mkv, .mp3 etc.) to DNA and also decode it back to retrieve original file. Enjoy the software by storing your Facebook data or your video in synthetic DNA.
DNA Cloud has been developed for the sole-purpose of generating a user-friendly, interactive environment for users to envisage their DNA data storage.

Goldman, et al. (Ref. 1 below) encoded 5.2 million bits of information (equivalent to 739 kilobytes of hard-disk storage) into DNA, which is not very much data compared to the gigabytes you likely have on your computer’s hard-drive. But, of course, these are “early days” in field of DNA data storage.

Currently, a major obstacle to storing more data on DNA is the cost. “With negligible computational costs and optimized use of the technologies we employed, we estimate current costs to be $12,400/MB for information storage in DNA and $220/MB for information decoding.” (From: Ref. 1 below) It’s likely, however, that these costs will decrease by orders of magnitude within the next decade.

Plant DNA as Self-Replicating Digital Hard-Drive?

Goldman, et al. (Ref 1 below) envision the long-term (millennia) storage of “digitized” DNA will likely occur in the form of isolated, freeze-dried or “solid-state” DNA, stored in a “…a cold, dry and dark environment (such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault….)”.

Rather than plastic vials, could living seeds – even living plants – be used as the receptacles for this “digitized” DNA?

Once cost is no longer an obstacle, then it may be possible to routinely insert “large chunks” of DNA (e.g., about a million base pairs) and even small chromosomes (see Ref. 2 below, for example) into plant cells.

Genomes of some higher plants are huge–tens to hundreds of billions of bases. So why the heck does it take a genome thirty times the size of yours and mine to make a trumpet lily plant? Most people believe it’s simply because there’s a colossal amount of junk DNA in the plants (and amphibians) with these enormous genomes. If these organisms have no problem carrying around all that excess baggage in the nuclei of their every cell, there’s no reason we can’t add a little more of our own devising.” (From: Ref. 4 below)

Maybe someday digital information will be stored in part of the DNA of genetically-modified Bristlecone pine trees, which could potentially live for over 5,000 years.

To archive digital records of human activity in the genomes of plants that may propagate for thousands, even millions, of generations – perhaps long after humans are gone – certainly captures the imagination.

Online Resource

  • Video – Information Storage in DNA (From: Wyss Institute, Harvard University; see also Ref. 3 below)


    1. Goldman, N., et al. (2013) “Towards practical, high-capacity, low-maintenance information storage in synthesized DNA.” Nature, Vol. 494, 77-80 doi:10.1038/nature11875. (PDF)

    2. Gaeta, R. T., R. E. Masonbrink, L. Krishnaswamy, C. Zhao, and J. A. Birchler (2012) “Synthetic chromosome platforms in plants.” Annual Review of Plant Biology, Vol. 63, pp. 307-330. (Abstract)

    3. Church, G. M., Y. Gao, and S. Kosuri (2012) “Next-Generation Digital Information Storage in DNA.” Science, Vol. 337, p. 1628. (Abstract)

    4. Walker, J. “Storing data in DNA.” (Full Text)

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