(image courtesy Luis Ceze/University of Washington)

The amount of data in the digital universe — including vast collections of computer files, historic archives, movies, photo collections, and other digital information stored on devices worldwide — is expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020. In other words, the world’s collective device storage is almost full. In an effort to free up space, researchers at the University of Washington have found a new way to store digital image files: in DNA.

In a recent experiment explained in a newly published paper, the team of researchers successfully converted the images pictured above into strings of DNA. They then retrieved them from the DNA and reconstructed the images perfectly, without a byte of information lost.

Why store images in DNA, though? Why not just get a bunch of new hard drives? As the researchers explain, this technique would greatly reduce the amount of space needed for data storage, and would provide a staying power that current digital storage systems lack. Currently, technology companies store all your selfies, emails, cat pics, etc. in sprawling data centers, but the world is producing data faster than the capacity to store it is growing. This new method could “shrink the space needed to store digital data that today would fill a Walmart supercenter down to the size of a sugar cube,” according to a press release. “All the movies, images, emails and other digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10,000 gigabytes) can be stored in [a] faint pink smear of DNA at the end of [a] test tube.” And while existing storage technologies, like flash drives and hard drives, degrade over time, DNA can reliably preserve information for centuries.

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All the movies, images, emails and other digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10,000 gigabytes) can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube. (Image credit: Tara Brown Photography/ University of Washington)

The study’s co-author, Luis Ceze, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering, explained further:

“Life has produced this fantastic molecule called DNA that efficiently stores all kinds of information about your genes and how a living system works — it’s very, very compact and very durable. We’re essentially repurposing it to store digital data — pictures, videos, documents — in a manageable way for hundreds or thousands of years.”

The elaborate technique is explained in depth in the researchers’ paper, but in basic terms, here’s how it works: Using a data compression approach called Huffman coding, researchers convert the binary code that makes up digital files into the four basic building blocks of DNA (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine). Once they convert the ones and zeros into DNA nucleotides, they synthesize artificial DNA that represents the information in the files. To retrieve the image, they essentially reverse the process to convert the information back to digital data. Here’s a diagram illustrating those conversions:


The research has potential applications in the art world, as museums and galleries are constantly looker for better and safer ways to store their artworks to prevent degradation. “A great use [of this technique could be] safe archives of digital copies of art pieces,” Ceze tells Hyperallergic in an email. The technique is still expensive and equipment-intensive, but once it’s made affordable, we could theoretically store the whole history of art in a test tube.

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.