Can the Future of Digital Storage be Found in DNA?
Throughout history there have been disruptive technologies that have altered the current course of technological evolution. Examples of these technologies can be seen in the emergence of inventions like Gutenberg’s printing press, Edison’s light bulb, Marconi’s radio, Berners-Lee’s hypertext markup language (HTML) and Fleming’s penicillin. Each of these technologies spawned an industry and technology genre of its own and ultimately created an evolutionary plateau from which all new emerging scientists can begin their own investigatory journey into the scientific unknown.
The invention of a new tangible technology however is not the only thing that can alter the evolutionary path of science. Historically the emergence of new theories and ideas and occasionally simple statements made at the right place and time can provide a vehicle and a utility to change the future avenues of science. Sir Isaac Newton stated in a letter in 1676 that “If I have seen further than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants”. Someone of great stature had stated in a public document that he was only able to achieve what he had because of the work of those who came before him. This laid the groundwork for both the acceptance of the Scientific Method and of research concepts like scientific collaboration and multi disciplinary research.
So, if we know that tangible technologies and research can be so ground breaking that they can spawn new industries and technological direction and we also know that thoughts, ideas, and philosophies can also be so unique that they alter the path of science; then the question arises “Is it possible to forecast our IT future by looking at the current emerging technologies, ideas, and philosophies of today?” I believe it is.
To begin with, let’s establish our IT roots. In Information Technology there is one single idea and one single subsequent paper that can essentially be considered the “Special Relativity” of our computing universe. In 1936, Alan Turing published On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entsheidungs Problem in which he theorizes a mechanical machine that can calculate large complex numbers using a series of only two digits, zero or one. In a single event the entire digital age as we know it today was born. Literally every cell phone, desktop computer, laptop, iPod, and nearly every device with any kind of electronic component to it can be traced back to Turing’s 1936 work. It would be irresponsible of us to ponder the future of Information Technology without surrendering to the fact that the physical storage of these zero’s and one’s are what makes Information Technology possible in the first place.
As we begin to discuss the physical storage of zero’s and one’s on magnetic medium it is obvious that the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the availability and the advancement of storage that is one of our primary concerns. Since our current technologies limit us on how much binary data we can physically store on magnetic medium such as hard drives, the industry need is for more information, more specific identification of information, and the richer categorization of information. Furthermore the need is to achieve this in less physical space with more mobility, security and accessibility provided to the users of that information. The future of Information Technology will rely heavily on the availability of new tangible storage technologies as well as ground breaking ideas and concepts focusing on the physical data storage of binary information.
One of the most promising new emerging Information Technologies and philosophical constructs is the use of DNA. Yes Deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule responsible for providing instructions to the cell in which it resides. On February 28th, 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson (building on the work of Rosalind Franklin) famously screamed the words “We’ve discovered the secret of life!” at a pub called the Eagle in Cambridge. I am fairly sure at this point that they did not have the future of the not yet existing IT world in mind. Yet, that may be exactly what is happening.
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“Given that DNA storage, a self-encrypting medium at molecular scale, is yet in its infancy, the impact on global information flows is just beginning”
George Church famously used DNA to encode and decode multiple copies of his 53,400 word book with images in a density of 1 million gigabytes per cubic millimeter. In 2012 George M. Church, Yuan Gao, and Sriram Kosuri from Harvard proposed a new method for storing binary data inside of biological DNA sequences using one of the four chemical indicators (A,T,C, or G) to represent a zero or a one (AT=0 GC=1). Although work has been done in this area since 1988, the proposed technique potentially offers the first practical application for the IT industry to move towards actual biological data storage that could be written or retrieved by digital computing devices.
We have already seen the emergence in the last few years of enterprise use of DNA material as a storage medium for the identification of items in supply chains, for point o f origin applications, and evidentiary use in law-enforcement. Given that DNA storage, a self-encrypting medium at molecular scale, is yet in its infancy, the impact on global information flows is just beginning. If we look at the existing tangible technological advancements in the area of binary storage using DNA, combined with the existing theoretical scaffolding that provides us with prospective practicalities and uses of the technology, it can undoubtedly be one area that we can adequately predict will play a role in our IT future.
If we peer ever so carefully into our IT future we can imagine, to some degree, that the development of software applications, web based services, and social networking platforms will no longer be predicated or limited based on the physical limitations of the day including data storage. The design questions will simply be limited to “What do we want this application to do?” and no longer will involve the question “Can we do it?” The design implications of this are enormous and from an industry point of view will have considerable effects on everything from the way we roll out upgrades to the way we provide both software and hardware support.
In this article I have discussed the emergence of a new technology and a multi-disciplinary research area that I believe will play an imperative role in the future of Information Technology. The existing successes in this area show us a future path of potentially, unlimited data storage capabilities. Now I leave you with this question to ponder; “What would YOU do with it?”