Wait, DNA data storage? You mean — storing digital binary data as DNA?
Yes. And, it blows my mind too.
DNA’s not just the smoking gun in a crime drama
In 2012, Harvard scientists figured out to how to encode a 52,000 page book using DNA as the hard drive.
This year, scientists are getting better at packing more data onto fewer DNA strands. How much data? An almost unfathomable amount. The article states that this innovation is:
Capable of storing 215 petabytes (215 million gigabytes) in a single gram of DNA, [and] the system could, in principle, store every bit of datum ever recorded by humans in a container about the size and weight of a couple of pickup trucks.
For reference, 215 million gigabytes is equal to 6.7 million 32GB iPhones.
Here’s a summary of how encoding works:
1. Convert digital data files into binary 1s and 0s or the most basic kind of computer gibberish.
2. Compress (or tidy up) the data file and split it into chunks of code.
3. Package and tag the chunks of code for smooth reassembly using a special algorithm. The tags are important since otherwise, we would be dealing with an invigorating million-piece puzzle.
4. Synthesize the DNA (Don’t ask me how this is done. I’ll say magic.)
The data is all set for storage in a cool, dry place. If properly stored, the synthetic DNA “can last hundreds of thousands of years.”
To decode, all scientists have to do is sequence the DNA and input that information into a translator to convert the four-letter alphabet of DNA (i.e., As, Cs, Gs, and Ts) back into binary. It’s just like when you translate Chinese into English using Google Translate only the Google Translator speaks DNA and binary and is a lot more accurate. Tags help put the puzzle piece strands of DNA back together.
This could be the next big thing, especially for archiving important data. Encoding and decoding are not instantaneous, but the DNA strands don’t wear out like disk drives do over time. Plus, glitches in the code are easy to find and fix, resulting in a completely error-free data file.
It’s in an auditor’s DNA
Alright, now that you have the basics down, let’s talk about repercussions for businesses and auditors. If auditors are expected to test controls on this type of thing, that’s going to be quite the headache.
Right now, data center walkthroughs are a breeze. Check a few dates here and there to make sure the inspections on the fire suppression system and backup generator are current. Observe that the physical controls are in place to make sure the servers are locked up tight. That’s about it. I don’t know what you would need to do if the company is using DNA to store digital data. Ugh. I know my synthetic biology skills not sufficient for that.
I’m skeptical about how pervasive DNA storage will be, so it may not be horrible for us auditors to deal with after all. Still, archiving information with DNA would definitely be an upgrade to magnetic tape. Plus, archiving doesn’t play a huge role in an audit for anything other than for general IT controls. But, that might not be the case for long…
DNA and quantum computing
The caveat is that some researchers envision that DNA data storage has the potential to be integrated into quantum computers — the future of computing. It’s a blend of all the crazy sci-fi stuff where quantum physicists rule the world (only minus the robots take over and cause the apocalypse part). And, who knows, these supercomputers may be pivotal to day-to-day business operations.
According to Wired magazine:
The quantum computer revolution is coming. Physicists say these devices will be fast enough to break every encryption method banks use today.
Google researchers said they anticipate the first commercial quantum computers in five years, and the company wants to build and test a 49-qubit—that’s “quantum bit”—quantum computer by the end of this year.
One of the hiccups with quantum computing is data storage since a single quantum data file would be the size of approximately 40,000 videos and, since they are so large, “A single quantum file would occupy a stamp-sized area on a solid-state hard drive.”
DNA storage might be a viable solution to the quantum computer data storage problem:
So one alternative storage contender is DNA… Unlike conventional hard drives, which only store data on a two-dimensional surface, DNA is a three-dimensional molecule. That extra vertical dimension lets DNA store much more data per unit area.
Are you still thinking this is a pie in the sky idea? Well, sure, it’s pricey now and not “ready for large-scale use yet” but, honestly, it’s not crazy expensive. The scientists who successfully performed the most recent experiment said it “cost $7000 to synthesize the 2 megabytes of data in the files, and another $2000 to read it.” Plus, with quantum computing starting to look to DNA data storage as a way forward, it might start getting some teeth.