DNA will revolutionise data storage

As a storage medium DNA blows away everything else by miles, literally.

DNA data storage

Before I share some outrageous examples, I want to put present day hard disk storage capacities into perspective, so you can truly appreciate the comparison. We used to think of MBs, and then GBs as the standard units of data storage. These days we’re beginning to think of TBs as the standard. But there are much bigger storage denomination standards we talk about as well.

Here’s how storage measurement denominations add up:

1000 MB = 1GB
1000 GB = 1TB
1000 TB = 1PetaBytes
1000 PB = 1ExaByte – (150EB is the total amount of data that has travelled across the internet since it’s creation)
1000 EB = 1ZettaByte – (300ZB is the amount of visual information conveyed from the eyes to the brain of the entire human race in a year)
1000 ZB = 1YottaByte – (20YB is a holographic snapshot of the entire Earth’s surface)

Here’s how storage measurement denominations translate into TBs:

1 PB = 1000 TB
1 EB = 1,000,000 TB
1 ZB = 1,000,000,000 TB
1 YB = 1,000,000,000,000

It’s worth remembering that data storage size is measured not only in data density but also in storage medium physical size. It’s also important to consider the power, data integrity preservation and storage condition requirements for your chosen storage medium.


To truly appreciate the opportunity DNA storage offers, I’m going to use a 3TB drive as a comparative unit of measurement. This is because a 3TB drive is the largest drive in common use today. Though it is possible to get up to 6TB drives, it’s still very rare to see them. 3TB drives are not quite the most common standard yet, with 2TB drives being more common, however they are physically the same size and for the purposes of these examples, they allow me to keep the number of drives required for each example to a minimum, whilst remaining realistic about currently available storage solutions.

3TB Drives

  • An average 3TB drive weighs 635g
  • An average 3TB drive measures 14.7 x 10.1 x 2.6cm
  • 3TB Drive Storage Space:
    • A 3TB drive can hold 51,000 hours of music – that’s about 5.5 years of listening to music, without sleep.
    • A 3TB drive can hold 960,000 HD photos – if 700 photos were taken on every family holiday, it would hold all the photos from nearly 1400 different holidays.
    • A 3TB drive can hold 3000 hours of digital video – that’s a little over 4 months  of watching video without sleep.
  • A 3TB drive can be stored between 0 degrees and 60 degrees centigrade.
  • A present day hard drive can be expected to maintain its integrity for 5-8 years if stored at optimal temperatures and away from magnetic fields

So, I think we can all agree that in every day real terms, 3TB is quite a lot of space.



  • By comparison, 3TB of data stored on DNA would weigh only 0.003 g – that’s less than 1/20th of a grain of salt. 064799 g
  • Gram for gram, DNA the same dimensions as a 3TB disk (i.e. 14.7 x 10.1 x 2.6cm) could store 635,000TB of data.
  • DNA can be stored at a huge range of temperatures from vastly below -100 degrees to above 50 degrees C, though room temperature is perfect
  • DNA can maintain its integrity for 10,000 years without any special conditions.
  • A grain of DNA the same size as an average grain of salt could store 65TB of data (see diagram below – a grain of salt on a one cent coin).

single grain of salt

Needless to say, even with massive error redundancy built in, the size is still negligible.

Well, impressive as that is, it’s a bit dry and abstract, so let’s look at some serious data storage challenges:


Every book ever written

Imagine if you wanted to store a digital version of every book ever written in any language. How much space would that require? Well it’s been estimated that this would require 400TB of storage.

400TB =

  • 133 x 3TB drives – that’s a stack of drives over 3.4 meters high (11 feet, 4 inches if you prefer imperial) and weighing 84 kilos (well over 13 stones)
  • DNA – the physical space required would be the equivalent of just over 6 grains of salt and would weigh only 0.018 g

Every word ever spoken

Every word uttered by all of humanity since we began to speak. Now there’s a substantial challenge. Well obviously this is an estimate extrapolated from our present population, average spoken word by each person, the history of the spoken word and population growth estimates, but it is estimated that this would require 5,000,000 TB .

5,000,000 TB =

    • 1,666,666 x 3TB drives – that is a stack of drives over 43 Kilometers in height (just short of 27 miles high) and weighing 1.05 million kilos (1,157 tons) – that’s a few miles higher than Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking skydive from space and heavier than 170 full grown Africal elephants

24 miles high

  • DNA – The DNA equivalent, required to store 5,000,000 TB, would occupy the same physical space as just under 1.7 bags of sugar and have a weight of only 1.67 kilos

5,000,000 TB of data stored in DNA

Your entire lifetime’s visual experience

The amount of visual information conveyed from the eyes to the brain of a human in one year is estimated to be 428.5TB

To record every thing you ever saw, all day, every day from birth to the day you reach 100 years old – A full video record of every moment of your life.

4285 TB =

  • 1428 x 3TB drives – that’s a stack of hard drives over 37 meters high (over 120 feet) and weighing 906kg (that’s the weight of a small car)
  • DNA – the physical space required would be that of about 66 grains of salt and would weigh only 4.3g (see image below – a US cent is smaller than a British penny). See that tiny speck of salt? That’s a visual representation of your entire life that is.

66 grains of salt

Final Thoughts

Cost: It has been estimated that encoding data in DNA currently costs $12,400 per megabyte, plus $220 per megabyte to read that data back. This makes DNA storage commercially unviable at present, but like all technologies, the price will drop dramatically as the benefits are recognised.

Looking forward, there are some exciting possibilities:

  • You could carry all of your personal data on you (within you) – The augmented human (banking info, tax info, medical records, passwords, contact list, ID etc). This would not be live DNA as that would be prone to mutation during replication, but you could start to build biological access systems to access the information – and here we start to enter a separate biotech post on genetic coding and neurology
  • Lifetime video diary, visual accounts and eye witness accounts – again, a different post on biohacking, genetic coding and augmenting the human – but the storage solution is clearly DNA
  • It is worth thinking about the ability to hack DNA. This is far off the radar of todays hackers, but as genetic coding and DNA encoding becomes more common place, tools and knowledge will start to emerge for the hacker to play with. Left unconsidered this is a Pandoras Box. We have no excuse to proceed to a biotech, augmented future without having thoroughly considered and resolved the hacking threat first
  • Consider this: With the storage capabilities of DNA and the similar feats of biotechnology engineering successes going on, has conventional electronic technology had it’s day?

The O/N Windows – Will you lead or do you follow?


Opportunity Necessity lifecycle chart

This chart does generalise a little, as every technology develops differently and has an inception-to-release timescale that is unique to it, however, it represents the relative position and timing of the different phases, especially the Opportunity and Necessity windows in any successful, important technology. You will notice that the Hype Cycle is both effected by and effects the O/N windows. The chart also ends deliberately prematurely and fails to show the continuing growth of the Necessity window, which, with important technologies, grows exponentially to dwarf this part of the chart.


For a relatively short time during the lifecycle of inception, development, alpha/beta testing and final release of a technology (software or hardware), there is a window of opportunity for us as technologists. Here I will use the example of a single technology, however, in real life an existing technology often goes into an additional window of opportunity due to the creation of another, newer, symbiotic technology coming into it’s own window of opportunity. No one technology is the solution to everything. It’s how we combine new and existing technologies to solve existing problems that creates innovation. That’s why things like Big data and Public APIs are filled with such exciting potential (but that’s another post). Continue reading

Technology Trend Consortium Predictions for 2012

Well it’s that time of year again (actually it’s a bit late) where the consortium of geeks convene and put their technology predictions for the next year in the hat. So here they are, in no particular order:

2012 Technology Predictions

1. Greater utility (Mashups being used more) – public data APIs are huge and we are massively under utilizing them and they WILL add a huge amount of value and utility to client solutions. Much more data is due to come on line this year. Their power lies in using multiple, symbiotic APIs to create utility that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s interesting that television has been going through a change that has much in common with the trend in APIs this year: “Channels are much less important now. Content is the new king”
Continue reading

Kinect – the next step in HCI

With Microsofts launch of the highly anticipated Kinect interface comes much excitement from the development world occupied by us….well let’s be honest, geeks. But hey, Geeks are the new jocks in todays tech driven world. We make shit happen. Don’t believe me? Within 3 hours of the Kinect being sold it had been hacked and here’s just a few of the initial results. Already I can see LOTS of possibilities.

As soon as I’m back from LA I’m going to be opening up one of these babies and experimenting with it myself.

By the way, this is my first trip to California and for the life of me I cannot figure out why everyone doesn’t live here. The streets are palm tree lined. It’s clean, friendly (at least compared to London), it’s 26 degrees C in November, sunny, beautiful and the beaches and the mountains are less than an hour away. Time to relocate I think.