Researchers have turned DNA into a minuscule hard drive

The human body is filled with vast amounts of information tucked away inside DNA, and it's extremely efficient at storing data. It's millions of times more efficient at storing data than existing data storage solutions. Researchers from Northwestern University say that we could get rid of every hard drive in the world and store all that data using only a couple of hundred pounds of DNA.

DNA's efficiency for data storage has led many researchers to search for potential breakthroughs for biosensing and biorecording technology for next-generation digital storage. So far, teams working on using DNA for data storage have been unable to overcome significant inefficiencies preventing the technology from scaling. Researchers at Northwestern University proposed a method for recording information to DNA that needs only minutes to complete versus hours or days required for similar technology today.

The breakthrough the researchers made was a new enzymatic system that synthesizes DNA, allowing the recording of rapidly changing environmental signals directly into DNA sequences. The senior author of the paper is Northwestern engineering professor Keith E.J. Tyo, and he believes the breakthrough could change the way neurons inside the brain are studied and recorded.

Tyo and his team wanted to be able to write DNA from scratch. Outside the body, this was done utilizing chemical synthesis, which is very slow. The new method Tyo and his team developed writes information to DNA using an enzyme to synthesize the DNA that can be manipulated directly. In addition, the enzyme allows protein expression to be done ahead of time, allowing for continuously stored information.

The method the team hypothesized for their study is called Time-sensitive Untemplated Recording using Tdt for Local Environmental Signals or TURTLES. The process can synthesize completely new DNA rather than copying a template resulting in faster and higher resolution recording. DNA polymerase continues to add bases, and as it does, data is recorded into the genetic code in minutes as environmental changes impact the composition of the DNA polymerase synthesizes.

The new process holds the prospect of allowing scientists studying the brain to place recorders inside all cells in the brain, allowing the mapping of responses to stimuli inside the brain with single-cell resolution. Scientists believe the TURTLES system could be good for long-term archival data applications that only needs to be read if an incident occurs.