DNA storage: The code that could save civilisation


Neither Ewan Birney nor Nick Goldman can remember exactly how they came up with the idea of storing all the world’s knowledge in DNA. They know it happened in the bar of the Gastwerk Hotel in Hamburg, and that many beers were involved. They may or may not have scrawled their ideas on a napkin. “It must have involved a pen or pencil because I can’t think without holding one,” says Goldman. “It would’ve involved a lot of hands from me,” says Birney.

Their chat was fuelled by a simple realisation: scientists would soon start amassing more genetic information than they could afford to store. In the 1990s, this problem would have seemed laughable. Back then, it took a decade to sequence the human genome and geneticists could store their data on an Excel spreadsheet. Since then, the relentless improvement in sequencing machines has turned that trickle of genomic data into a full-on flood. This technology doubles in efficiency every six months, allowing you to sequence twice as much DNA for the same amount of money. However, it takes 18 months to get twice as much hard disk for your buck, so it is starting to cost more to store the results of experiments than to actually run them in the first place. “And at some point, not too far in the future, you would run out of either disk space or money,” says Goldman.

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