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Is DNA the future of data storage? - Leo Bear-McGuinness

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In the event of a nuclear fallout, every piece of digital and written information could all be lost. Luckily, there is a way that all of human history could be recorded and safely stored beyond the civilization’s end. And the key ingredient is inside all of us: our DNA. Leo Bear-McGuinness explains.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Leo Bear-McGuinness
  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Script Editor Mia Nacamulli
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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DNA has three properties that make it an ideal vessel for long-term information storage:

1) DNA has already stood the test of time.

Although DNA is not the first organic compound used to synthesis life, it has been used by organisms for billions of years to store biological information. In fact, DNA is such a stable molecule that scientists have managed to extract mitochondrial DNA from human remains that are 65,000 years old.

Although you might think DNA shouldn’t have a very long shelf life – after all, we replace our own DNA and cells every day – under the right conditions, it last for far longer than we ever could. As light and heat cause it to radically decay, placing DNA in a cold and dark environment can help it to last for thousands of years. However, this isn’t the limit. Way back in 2000, scientists discovered intact DNA inside living bacteria that were 250 million years old, buried in salt crystals 600 meters below the ground!

2) DNA is universal. 

While our languages, societies and cultures may be different, everyone on the planet shares the same genetic material. This means that for the first time all humanity’s information can be stored in a shared ‘language’. Upon discovering an ancient text written in a dead language, we have to work backwards to understand these new symbols. If DNA is used to store information, the archeologists and historians of the future will be able to quickly decipher the code.

3) DNA can be easily replicated.

While online information can be easily copied and duplicated, its lifespan on data disks and magnetic tape is too short. Information stored on stone tablets or paper can last for far longer if stored correctly, but is incredibly time consuming to replicate. Fortunately, DNA has the best of both worlds. It can last for millions of years and, thanks to established techniques such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction, one strand can become billions in just hours.

The current peak of DNA coding technology is encoding 215 million gigabytes of information on a single gram of DNA. However, while this may be compact, it is certainly not cheap. In 2016 Microsoft reportedly spent $800,000 on encoding 100 literary classics into DNA. Fortunately, researchers believe that costs will come down as DNA sequencing technology becomes ever more refined. But for the time being, we all might have to wait a little longer to have our favorite pictures and tweets to be immortalized.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animation lessons feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Leo Bear-McGuinness
  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Script Editor Mia Nacamulli
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

Share

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