‘Just a Small Bit of DNA Theoretically Fits 200 Exabytes of Data’

In very meta news, Netflix says it has stored an episode of its new show Biohackers in DNA. It’s a first for the streaming service, which partnered with San Francisco biotech company Twist Bioscience and Robert Grass, a professor of chemistry and applied biosciences at ETH Zurich, to do so. The fictional German language series, which debuted in August, explores the futuristic possibilities of engineering biology.

To store data in DNA, a data file is first converted from its binary code of 0s and 1s into the four building blocks of DNA — A, C, G, and T. Those letters are then encoded into short segments of synthetic DNA made by machines that are essentially DNA printers. In addition to storing part of the data file, each DNA segment contains an index that marks its place within the overall data file. To retrieve the data, the segments are read using a DNA sequencing machine and then decoded from As, Cs, Gs, and Ts back into the original file. This indexing system is akin to random-access memory on a computer, allowing part of the file to be biologically recovered so only the data of interest is read.

Why store data in DNA anyway? Well, it’s a far denser storage method than today’s hard drives. A huge amount of data can be stored in just a smear of DNA. DNA is also a very stable molecule, and if stored in the right conditions, it can last hundreds or thousands of years. Right now, storing data in DNA is expensive, but according to Emily Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience, the cost is expected to come down as the technology improves and demand increases.

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

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