Day 6

Researchers put music in DNA. Is this the future of archiving?

As the world creates an overwhelming amount of data, researchers think dense, durable DNA could be the solution to our storage needs because it won't be obsolete until humans are.
Researchers have developed a way to store data in DNA. (Pixabay)

Come Hell or high water, the legacy of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" is safe. Last week, researchers at the University of Washington, Microsoft and Twist Bioscience encoded archival audio of the rock anthem into synthetic DNA.

If stored properly, it could exist in that medium for hundreds of thousands of years.

Researchers got the version of "Smoke on the Water" they embedded from the Montreux Jazz Festival archives. They also embedded archival audio of Miles Davis performing "Tutu" at the festival.

"Unparallelled" archival storage

Luis Ceze is a professor at the University of Washington who worked on the project. As he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, it shows the significant potential of DNA for archival storage.

"DNA is an incredible information storage molecule," Ceze says.

Ceze's team had already embedded images and video into DNA, but this was the first real archival work they'd done.

All the trends are in our favour. If you look at the progress being made and our ability to manipulate DNA, it's just remarkable.- Luis  Ceze

Because it's so dense, DNA can contain massive amounts of information and because it's so durable, it won't become obsolete in a generation like celluloid, cassette tapes or floppy disks

"You could put all of Facebook's pictures, which would be a few exabytes of information, into a couple of sugar cubes," if
you stored them in DNA, Ceze said.

An exobyte is a billion billion bytes. 

How it  works

To encode data in DNA, researchers first convert the zeroes and ones that make up digital information into As, Ts, Cs and Gs, which correspond to the building blocks of DNA—adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine.

Once functional sequences are prepared, researchers can make and duplicate synthetic DNA from them.

"Tutu" and "Smoke on the Water" now exist in millions of sequences of DNA that can be stored in a tiny test tube.

To listen to them, one must first suspend the DNA holding the songs in a solution. Next, one can use a DNA sequencer to read the letters of the bases forming the molecules. Then, algorithms can determine the digital code those letters form. From that code, comes the music.

It's complicated but Ceze says his team performed this process without error.

Digital world is expanding

The need for dense storage, like that which DNA provides, increases as the digital world expands.

In 2014, Dell EMC reported that if a byte of data were a gallon of water, enough would form every 10 seconds to fill the average house. The company predicted that by 2020, filling a house will take two seconds.


This massive increase will come as internet-connected appliances — or smart home — become more popular and emerging markets like China, Brazil, Russia and Mexico create more online data.

What's next

Before DNA data storage comes to an archive near you, researchers have two main problems to solve, Ceze said. The cost of making synthetic DNA needs to go down and the storage process needs to be automated and made faster.

Ceze said it will also be important for researchers to plan ahead when securing the information they store DNA. They'll need to develop encryption strong enough to withstand the advanced code-breaking capabilities computers of the future are predicted to have.

"All the trends are in our favour. If you look at the progress being made and our ability to manipulate DNA, it's just remarkable," Ceze said.

But for now, it may be worth thinking about what songs are DNA-worthy. Ceze says he would encode Gilberto Gil's "A Novidade".

Each member of the Day 6 team also picked a song they would like to preserve and you can listen to those on our Spotify playlist.



To hear the full interview with Luis Ceze, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.