Scientists Develop New Scalable DNA-Based Data Storage System

The system is a more dynamic version of previous attempts at DNA data storage.
Chris Young

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a groundbreaking approach to DNA data storage systems that eradicates some of the key obstacles facing the technology's development.

Ultimately, the scientists created a system that is easier to scale up for practical use and brings us a tentative step closer to seeing DNA storage systems come into common usage.


We are living examples of the power of DNA computing

One major advantage of DNA storage over quantum computing is that we know without a shadow of a doubt that it works; each of us is a living example of the data storage and computational power of DNA computing.

What's more, over 10 trillion DNA molecules can be squeezed into a single cubic centimeter. This means that a cubic centimeter of material could theoretically perform 10 trillion calculations at once and hold as much as 10 terabytes of data. This is orders of magnitude more information than existing systems of comparable size.

However, there are some significant hurdles to overcome if DNA computing is to reach its potential.

“Most of the existing DNA data storage systems rely on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to access stored files, which is very efficient at copying information but presents some significant challenges,” Albert Keung, co-corresponding author of a paper on the work told SciTechDaily.

“We’ve developed a system called Dynamic Operations and Reusable Information Storage, or DORIS, that doesn’t rely on PCR. That has helped us address some of the key obstacles facing practical implementation of DNA data storage technologies,” Keung explained.

The findings were presented in a paper titled 'Dynamic and scalable DNA-based information storage,' which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Say hi to DORIS

Current systems largely rely on sequences of DNA called primer-binding sequences. These are added to the ends of DNA strands that store information.

Ultimately, the primer-binding sequence of DNA serves as a file name — when a user wants a specific file they retrieve the strands of DNA bearing that sequence. 

One of the main issues with DNA computing systems that use PCR is that, in order to rip the double-stranded DNA apart and reveal the primer-binding sequence, the system has to drastically raise and lower the temperature of the stored genetic material.

DORIS uses a more practical approach. Instead of using double-stranded DNA as a primer-binding sequence, DORIS uses an “overhang” that consists of a single strand of DNA. This means that DORIS can find the relevant primer-binding sequences without disturbing the double-stranded DNA — doing away with the need for drastic changes in temperature.

“In other words, DORIS can work at room temperature, making it much more feasible to develop DNA data management technologies that are viable in real-world scenarios,” James Tuck, co-corresponding author of the paper and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, tells SciTechDaily.

What's more, once DORIS has identified the correct DNA sequence, it doesn’t rely on PCR to make copies. Instead, the system transcribes DNA to RNA, which is then reverse-transcribed back into DNA. Previous systems, using PCR, would essentially have to destroy the file in order to read it.

“We’ve developed a functional prototype of DORIS, so we know it works,” Keung says. “We’re now interested in scaling it up, speeding it up, and putting it into a device that automates the process – making it user friendly.”

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