DNA stores tremendous amounts of genetic information, but it also has a lot of potential for storing digital data. It’s possible that the billion-odd base pairs in a single strand of DNA could be used to record binary data in a way that won’t degrade or use too much energy.
But the technology is still nascent, because it’s tricky to extract that data again. If you want to know the information contained in a strand of DNA, the whole strand needs to be sequenced.
A paper published in Nature Communications has described a way to ‘preview’ files of DNA, which means they can be used and organised faster.
“The advantage to our technique is that it is more efficient in terms of time and money,” says Kyle Tomek, lead author on the paper and a PhD student at North Carolina State University (NCSU), US.
“If you are not sure which file has the data you want, you don’t have to sequence all of the DNA in all of the potential files. Instead, you can sequence much smaller portions of the DNA files to serve as previews.”
DNA storage systems usually use PCR to identify strands with the right data. Each DNA ‘file’ contains a primer-binding sequence of DNA, which is used as a name. Using the relevant primer, PCR makes lots of copies of the required strand of DNA, which can then be sequenced and read as data.
One roadblock in this process is if two strands of DNA have similar primer-binding sequences, then PCR will amplify both of them. This means DNA files need very distinct tags from one another.
“At some point it occurred to us that we might be able to use these non-specific interactions as a tool, rather than viewing it as a problem,” says Albert Keung, co-author on the paper and also from NCSU.
The researchers found that similar file names on the DNA strands could let them open an entire file or only part of the file, depending on the parameters of the PCR process (such as temperature, reagents and concentrations).
“Our technique makes the system more complex,” says James Tuck, another co-author. “This means that we have to be even more careful in managing both the file-naming conventions and the conditions of PCR. However, this makes the system both more data-efficient and substantially more user friendly.”
“We’re currently looking for industry partners to help us explore the technology’s commercial viability,” says Keung.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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