Researchers from the University of Washington and Microsoft have stored digital images in DNA. The team of computer scientists and electrical engineers has detailed one of the first complete systems to encode, hold, and retrieve digital data using the molecules, which can store information millions of times more compactly than current archival technologies.

All the movies, images, emails and other digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10,000 gigabytes) can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube.
Tara Brown Photography/ University of Washington

In one experiment, the team successfully encoded digital data from four image files into the nucleotide sequences of synthetic DNA snippets. The researchers then reversed the process — retrieving the correct sequences from a larger pool of DNA and reconstructing the images without losing a single byte of information.

“Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works — it’s very, very compact and very durable,” said Luis Ceze, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering. “We’re essentially repurposing it to store digital data — pictures, videos, documents — in a manageable way for hundreds or thousands of years.”

DNA molecules can store information many millions of times more densely than existing technologies for digital storage — flash drives, hard drives, magnetic and optical media. The team from the Molecular Information Systems Lab housed in the UW Electrical Engineering Building, in close collaboration with Microsoft Research, is developing a DNA-based storage system that it expects could address the world’s needs for archival storage.


Also: Learn about NASA's Advanced Data Analytics Platform (ADAPT).