The hereditary molecule DNA can store a great deal of information over long periods of time in a very small space. For a good ten years, scientists have therefore been pursuing the goal of developing DNA chips for computer technology, for example for the long-term archiving of data. Such chips would be superior to conventional silicon-based chips in terms of storage density, longevity, and sustainability.
Four recurring basic building blocks are found in a DNA strand. A specific sequence of these blocks can be used to encode information, just as nature does. To build a DNA chip, the correspondingly coded DNA must be synthesised and stabilised. If this works well, the information is preserved for a very long time – researchers assume several thousand years. The information can be retrieved by automatically reading out and decoding the sequence of the four basic building blocks.
What challenges have to be overcome
These challenges must be overcome to make DNA data storage more applicable and marketable. Suitable tools for this are light-controlled enzymes and protein network design software. Thomas Dandekar and his chair team members Aman Akash and Elena Bencurova discuss this in a recent review in the journal Trends in Biotechnology.
Dandekar's team is convinced that DNA has a future as a data store. In the journal, the JMU researchers show how a combination of molecular biology, nanotechnology, novel polymers, electronics and automation, coupled with systematic development, could make DNA data storage useful for everyday use possible in a few years.
DNA chips made of nanocellulose
At the JMU Biocentre, Dandekar's team is developing DNA chips made of semiconducting, bacterially produced nanocellulose. "With our proof of concept, we can show how current electronics and computer technology can be partially replaced by molecular biological components," says the professor. In this way, sustainability, full recyclability and high robustness even against electromagnetic pulses or power failures could be achieved, but also a high storage density of up to one billion gigabytes per gram of DNA.
Further improving DNA storage media
Dandekar's team is currently working on combining the DNA chips made of semiconducting nanocellulose even better with the designer enzymes they have developed. The enzymes also need to be further improved. "In this way, we want to achieve better and better control of the DNA storage medium and be able to store even more on it, but also save costs and thus step by step enable practical use as a storage medium in everyday life."