There is no hiding away from the amount of data humans produce. Each year, we generate a staggering 16 zettabytes of it, which equates to one billion terabytes. 

Although modern computers and silicon chips have served us well over the years, we are entering a time when we are desperate for something more. That answer lies is DNA, writes Alphr

Researchers are working on turning DNA into computer storage. DNA can be treated like a standard storage device: the binary code comes from using the bases thymine (T), guanine (G), adenine (A) and cytosine (C) to represent 1s (T and G) and 0s (A and C), 

However, “saving” and “opening” files stored in DNA memory doesn’t work exactly how we’d like. Right now, it’s only a read-only process, and the information has to be accessed as a whole, not in sections. If current computers were like that, you wouldn’t be able to save any new data and would have to open all the files in a folder at once. 

Over the years the industry has seen a number of efforts to try and turn these early techniques into a workable system. 

Nevertheless, storage isn’t the only application for DNA in computers. Researchers at Manchester University have managed to show that DNA can be “taught” to perform operations. 

“Current computers work on the principle of reading a code (stored on the hard drive) and performing a command (using the memory and processor),” explained chemist Andrew Currin, one of the authors in this study. “Our DNA computer has the same principle, except that our hard drive is the DNA sequence and the processor is the enzyme used to copy the DNA. You could easily imagine DNA storage and DNA computers would work very well combined together.”

Currently, DNA computers are distinguished from our typical devices because they can “effectively” grow. As DNA performs a command, it replicates itself and doubles in capacity.

“Everything happens in a tube. No living cells are used, and the DNA is entirely synthetic,” Currin added. “The DNA code is recognised by a shorter piece of DNA, which then causes the rest of the DNA to be copied. Once the code is recognised, it can be specifically altered to make a new command. This is done by a process called PCR, a widely used technique used to copy DNA.”

The potential consequences of such an increase in capacity are huge. “In our DNA computer, each computation is represented by a single DNA strand, which allows us to utilise many trillions of computations happening at the same time. This type of DNA-based computer can have huge advantages over conventional computers. We could have computers more powerful than all computers in the world combined and fit it in a pocket,” said Konstantin Korovin, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester. 

“Currently, we have a proof-of-concept implementation, but we need to develop the techniques further to achieve the potential. One of the technical challenges is to make DNA computations reliable at a large scale and minimise the number of errors in computations.”

What’s more is that large companies are finally starting to recognise the potential hidden inside DNA. Microsoft has recently announced its interest in adding DNA storage to their cloud system. 

If scientists are able to crack DNA computers, how long before the lines between natural and artificial programming begin to blur? 

 

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