Data storage

Plans within plans

DNA could be used to embed useful information into everyday objects

A HARD DRIVE is a miracle of modern technology. For $50 anyone can buy a machine that can comfortably store the contents of, say, the Bodleian Library in Oxford as a series of tiny magnetic ripples on a spinning disk of cobalt alloy. But, as is often the case, natural selection knocks humanity’s best efforts into a cocked hat. DNA, the information-storage technology preferred by biology, can cram up to 215 petabytes of data into a single gram. That is 10m times what the best modern hard drives can manage.

And DNA storage is robust. While hard-drive warranties rarely exceed five years, DNA is routinely recovered from bones that are thousands of years old (the record stands at 700,000 years, for a genome belonging to an ancestor of the modern horse). For those reasons, technologists have long wondered whether DNA could be harnessed to store data commercially. Archival storage is one idea, for it minimises DNA’s disadvantages—which are that, compared with hard drives, reading and writing it is fiddly and slow.

Now, though, a team led by Yaniv Erlich of Erlich Lab, an Israeli company, and Robert Grass, a chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, have had another…