Dr. Will Hughes, associate professor of materials science and engineering and associate dean of the College of Innovation and Design, is working to create a better way to store digital information using nucleic acid memory (NAM).
Here’s how it works: Current binary code uses 0’s and 1’s to represent bits of information. A computer program then accesses a specific decoder to turn the numbers back into usable data. With nucleic acid memory, 0’s and 1’s are replaced with the nucleotides A, T, C and G. Known as monomers, they are covalently bonded to form longer polymer chains, also known as information strings.
It’s no secret that as a society we generate vast amounts of data each year. So much so that the 30 billion watts of electricity used annually by server farms today is roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants. And the demand keeps growing.
Hughes, with post-doctoral researcher Reza Zadegan and others, thinks DNA molecules can solve the problem. Nucleic acid — the “NA” in “DNA” — far surpasses electronic memory in retention time, while also providing greater information density and energy of operation. Their conclusions were published in the prestigious journal Nature Materials.
“DNA is the data storage material of life in general,” said Hughes. “Because of its physical and chemical properties, it also may become the data storage material of our lives.”
Cost-competitive technologies to read and write DNA could lead to real-world applications ranging from artificial chromosomes, digital hard drives and information-management systems, to a platform for watermarking and tracking genetic content or next-generation encryption tools that necessitate physical rather than electronic embodiment.