To make better computers, researchers look to microbiology

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Forget flash drives, hard drives, floppy disks, CDs, records, and VHS tapes. The most efficient way to store data may be all around you.

Computer engineers have created some amazingly small devices, capable of storing entire libraries of music and movies in the palm of your hand. But geneticists say Mother Nature can do even better.

DNA, where all of biology’s information is stored, is incredibly dense. The whole genome of an organism fits into a cell that is invisible to the naked eye.

That’s why computer scientists are turning to microbiology to design the next best way to store humanity’s ever-increasing collection of digital data.

With every new app, selfie, blog post, or cat video, the hardware to store the world’s vast archive of digital information is filling up. But, theoretically, DNA could store up to 455 exabytes per gram. In other words, you could have 44 billion copies of the extended versions of all three of The Lord of the Rings movies on the tip of your finger. (For reference, watching all those movies would take more than 164 million years.)

George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first used DNA as storage for digital information in 2012, which he reported in a paper published in the journal Science. At the time, he revealed his success during an interview on the Colbert Report by showing Stephen Colbert a tiny piece of paper on which there was a small spot that contained millions of copies of Dr. Church’s book, “Regenesis,” in the form of DNA.

Church and his colleagues were focused on proving that digital information could indeed be encoded in DNA at the time. But since then, teams of engineers and biologists have expanded on this proof-of-concept and worked to squeeze more and more data into DNA, eyeing the vast storage Church had predicted possible.

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