The storage capacity of DNA

DNA is quite the interesting molecule. It’s double helix structure has the capacity to store a staggering 214 petabytes of information per single gram of DNA. Scientist have devised a method which strings information across multiple DNA strands making DNA a prime candidate for the long time storage of information. When I say long term, I mean long term! Where silicon methods of storage degrade after hundreds of years, DNA storage is capable of storing information for up to a millions years if stored at significantly cold enough temperatures.

Recently scientists stored a movie within the DNA of bacteria using the newly discovered CRISPR CAS9 gene editing technology. The animation on the left comes from a series of images taken by Eadweard Muybridge of the mare, Annie G, galloping. The frames were encoded in genetic material and stored in living bacteria. The animation on the right shows the frames after multiple generations of bacterial growth, recovered by sequencing the bacterial genomes.

Frames from the animation on the left were encoded in genetic material and stored in living bacterial. The information within the DNA of the bacteria was then extracted and used to create the animation on the right. Fittingly the animation is a tribute to Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion”, one of the first ever motion films ever made.

The process is made possible by the revolutionary gene editing technology named CRISPR Cas9 . CRISPR-Cas9 consists of two molecules, an enzyme called Cas9 and a small peice of guide RNS called gRNA. The gRNA is engineered by scientists to bind to DNA and contains information to guide Cas9 to the location where information is to be inserted. Cas9 then acts as a molecular scissor and cleaves a portion of the DNA as instructed by the engineered gRNA. The damaged cell detects that a portion of of it’s DNA has been cleaved and then triggers its repair mechanisms. Genetic material containing the desired replacement information is injected in the general vicinity of the damaged DNA. The cells repair mechanism takes the genetic material and inserts it into the gap left by Cas9. The result is an altered strand of DNA.

This gene editing technology has major implications and may one day help cure many diseases.  Storing a movie demonstrates the massive storage capacity of DNA. Low read/write speeds limit the use of DNA as a storage device, making it unlikely to be used by the masses. It’s uses at this point are unknown, but much like the Pyramids of Giza, it could be used to send a message to the distant future. Perhaps there is already a message stored in our DNA waiting to be decoded.


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