Sumaiya Sayeed '20
Running out of storage when you’re trying to take a picture may be a thing of the past. The high demands of storage are being mitigated with the very familiar biological component that has stored information for generations: DNA.
Near the end of Hidden Figures, we see Octavia Spencer’s character, Dorothy Vaughan, facing the formidable IBM 7090 machine, a device en route to replacing the human computers at NASA. Frantically having learned Fortran, she prepares herself for the challenges that may arise with the implementation of this new piece of technology. In this scenario lies the representation of the inevitable doom of technology: as humans begin to demand more from technology, innovations are made that eventually make people obsolete. Today, the rise of the cloud data storage industry indicates a similar takeover of means of storage that were prominent not very long ago, but with the constantly high demands of people who require storing data, obsolescence of the current means of storing information may not be too far into the future. The next biggest turn in the technological sector may be figuring out how to use DNA for their computing machines.
Data is stored in bits; a string of binary digits (0 or 1) codes a piece of information (a character, a part of an image). The level of growth that was made possible with the introduction of the IBM 7090 was significant. The IBM 709, the machine that preceded the IBM 7090, utilized vacuum tubes, while the 7090 consisted of transistors, allowing NASA to perform considerably complex calculations. Today, people have a far larger ability to perform complex procedures in their tiny handheld phones, that contain silicon chips made of tiny transistors, a typical one being anywhere from 16 to 64 gigabytes. As one byte is 8 bits, and one gigabytes is 1 billion bytes, the capabilities of a cellphone far surpass those of the IBM 7090.
Yet, the level of calculations done every day is far more than what was done in the 60s and will be far larger in the near future. The innovations that companies are working on now are focused on increasing the number of transistors in a computer while minimizing the size of devices such that machines can run more quickly and efficiently. As hardware starts to meet its limit, companies are turning toward the the cloud industry, focusing on improving architecture and approaching their innovations from the software side.
This raises the question though: is there another physical substance that can perform and store data manipulations in the same way transistors and tubes have? It is possible that our very own DNA may be the solution. The innovation is based on the principle that there are four possible nucleotides that string together to build DNA, similar to the 0 and 1 digits that make up the binary coding system.
Since that breakthrough, scientists have begun to look beyond just its data storage potentials and address its limitations and applications. For example, due to biochemical properties that can cause it to lose sequencing, a group of scientists in New York have developed a DNA Fountain, a coding strategy that can recover files despite loss of DNA material, thus ensuring integrity of a DNA system. Moreover, this discovery comes at time when scientists have already been intrigued with the structural potential of DNA in creating devices. With DNA’s coding potential, it can very well find its way into daily technology, calculate complex functions, and become adapted by companies and individuals alike to store files.
Sumaiya Sayeed '20
Curiosity-driven, language-learning, nature-loving science enthusiast.