Scientists Just Stored 52 Pages of Mozart in DNA

DNA storage could decrease our reliance on energy-intensive data centers

Emily Mullin
Future Human
Published in
2 min readNov 4, 2020

--

Photo: DEA/A. Dagli Orti/Getty

So much of modern life is digital that the amount of data we’re generating is quickly outpacing the amount of storage space we have for that data. Not only does this mean we may need to build more massive data centers, but it’s bad news for climate change, too. The energy needs of data centers already account for about 1% of global electricity consumption, and that will only continue to increase.

As an alternative to computer servers, scientists have been exploring the idea of storing data in synthetic DNA. A tiny smear of DNA in a test tube could conceivably hold 10,000 gigabytes of data — the equivalent of 600 basic smartphones.

But using DNA to store data isn’t practical yet because the process of making synthetic DNA in a lab, encoding it with information, and retrieving the data is expensive. San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience already offers DNA-based data storage, but CEO Emily Leproust told me last year that it costs about $1,000 per megabyte. “If you think about a big email attachment, that’s 25 megabytes, that would be $25,000,” she said. “That’s an expensive email.” Twist’s special machines print out strands of DNA with incredibly high accuracy.

Scientists in Europe recently took a step toward making DNA data storage more realistic. As they wrote in the journal Nature Communications, they developed a so-called “massively paralleled” method that can produce DNA strands at scale and is considerably cheaper than conventional synthesis. The group, led by Robert Grass, PhD, a professor of chemistry and applied biosciences at ETH Zurich, used the approach to store 52 pages of digitized sheet music from Mozart’s string quartet “The Hunt” — 100 kilobytes of data — in 16,383 DNA sequences. (Recently, Grass and his team stored an episode of the Netflix show Biohackers in DNA.)

The downside is that their method had a high error rate, making it difficult to extract the stored data. However, the researchers were able to address these errors using corrective algorithms that successfully reconstructed the information. While this process may not be quite as elegant as Twist’s method, it brings us closer to more accessible DNA storage — which may prove to be a necessity as the amount of data we create grows exponentially.

--

--

Emily Mullin
Future Human

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.