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Will it be Possible to Store Data Forever?

So much of our existence takes place in a digital landscape. We’re told to back up our data to ensure that we won’t lose anything in the event of a disaster. For most, this means backing data up to hard drives, flash drives or the cloud. But what about after we’ve long gone? For historians looking back onto our past, will they be able to access this data? We might be able to store data for our lifetime, but is it actually possible to store data forever?

Ancient history can be found on scrolls, on clay tablets and on physical artefacts. Nowadays, in our digital world, that information is found in Word documents or PDFs. We can’t physically hold this data – sure, we can hold the device that contains that digital data, but it’s not the same.

Researchers are looking into ways that will allow us to store vast amounts of data for the very long term. In particular, one storage medium that is very natural to us is being looked at as a solution: DNA.

Simply put, DNA stores huge amounts of data in a small manner. However, DNA isn’t a completely ideal solution because it can be prone to errors. Missing or false information in the data can come about through chemical degradation and mistakes in the sequencing.

Robert Grass, a lecturer at ETH Zurich’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, is leading a team of researchers who have found a potential method to error-free storage of vast amounts of information on a timescale of more than a million years.

The information-bearing segments of DNA are encapsulated in glass and then an algorithm is used in order to fix the mistakes in the data. Researchers have previously shown how data can be saved and read in the form of DNA, but the period between writing and reading was small. However, even that small period can cause errors. Over the longer term, it becomes more complicated. This is because DNA can change greatly as it chemically reacts with the environment.

Nevertheless, genetic material discovered in fossilised bones from hundreds of thousands of years ago is being investigated. This is because it has been encapsulated and protected securely for huge amounts of time.

“Similar to these bones, we wanted to protect the information-bearing DNA with a synthetic 'fossil' shell,” said Grass.

His team encapsulated the DNA in silica spheres and then simulated long-term degeneration by storing it in high temperature containers. The DNA inside these shells was discovered to be robust, with a fluoride solution separating the data and allowing the information to be read.

However, while it’s important to store the data for long periods of time, it’s equally as important to do so error-free. The research team developed a scheme that would correct these errors based on codes similar to those used in transmission of data from radio to spacecrafts.

“In order to define a parabola, you basically need only three points. We added a further two in case one gets lost or is shifted,” explained Reinhard Heckel.

It’s certainly an exciting progression and one that will be continuingly researched to ensure that our present isn’t lost for the future.

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