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Researchers retrieve short film and a full operating system from strands of DNA

Why it matters to you

DNA may make it possible to compactly store vast amounts of data.

As humanity continues to hoard more and more information, we need to invest in alternative storage systems or else begin constructing buildings with hard drives. DNA might be the answer. Not only is it easy to read and write vast amounts of data on DNA, it’s also exceptionally stable and can last for hundreds of thousands of years.

To put it in perspective, it takes about a thousand current hard drives to store a petabyte of information. If that data could be stored on DNA, it could fit into a grain of pollen.

MoreAnalog DNA computers can perform math inside a test tube

Over the past couple years, researchers have encoded data for books, images, and music using the nucleotides of DNA — a, t, c, and g. Now, a team of researchers from Colombia University have done the same with a computer operating system and short film, using an algorithm that streams videos on cellphones to compress the information even further. They’ve published their results in the journal Science.

“DNA is much more compact relative to magnetic hard drives, allowing far more miniaturization,” Yaniv Erlich, a Colombia computer science professor and co-author of the study, told Digital Trends. “The half-life of DNA is [also] much longer by orders of magnitudes over regular media, enabling longer archival times.”

Erlich noted that standard storage hardware also tends to become obsolete in a matter of decades as new technologies emerge. “DNA has been around the last three billion years,” he said. DNA writing and retrieval has also become much faster and less expensive.

In the recent study, Erlich and his team encoded a series of files that included a computer operating system, a computer virus, and a 19th-century French film, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.” To compress the dat,a they deleted any excess letter combinations using an algorithm called fountain codes, which corrects streaming videos on cellphones. Twist Biosciences, a DNA-synthesis startup, then turned the digital information into biological DNA.

When the Colombia researchers received their DNA back, they used modern sequencing tools to unravel the data and were able to recover it without any errors and with more capacity than their predecessors, according to the study. The researchers suggest this is the highest-density data storage ever created.

You can watch the recovered short film below.