The Entire Internet Could Be Stored in a Test Tube

January 4, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

A pipette dropping liquid into a cluster of glass test tubes.
Photo credit: TNS Sofres/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Maybe we could skip all the cat pictures.

Do you think that humans, thousands of years down the road from now, might look back and wonder what we were like in 2016? For many of us, our lives are encapsulated on the Internet. Our emails, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and the pages we visit give a snapshot of who we are. For society as a whole, the same can be said for collective pages like News Sites and Wikipedia. They are “us” in a sense. You might think that what is on the Internet will be there forever, but technology changes and hard drives decay.

As anyone who has ever struggled to fit “just one more picture” on his or her phone or camera knows, data is precious and there isn’t always quite enough room for it. This is a problem Nature conquered long ago with DNA.

SEE ALSO: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your DNA

DNA is the language of life made up of sequences of nucleotides (A, C, T, and G), and it can store incredibly large amounts of information in incredibly small spaces.

In 2012, researchers showed that it was possible to translate information into DNA in order to store it and then read it back again. According to New Scientist, one gram of DNA could hold 455 exabytes of information — “enough for all the data held by Google, Facebook and every other major tech company, with room to spare.” The problem was that it wasn’t very stable over time.  

Engineers Robert Grass and Reinhard Heckel have come up with a way to store the data forever—or at least for 500,000 to one million years, which is what their testing mimicked. Grass was inspired by ancient fossils where DNA of animals is extremely stable. It would normally decay by reacting with water or the oxygen in the air, but if it is packed in stable glass it will last much, much longer. Heckel’s recommendation was to add redundancies into the DNA — basically copies of itself — so that if some information is lost, a duplicate is available.

Choosing what to store will be the researchers’ next challenge. Although we could store everything on the Internet, it is currently very costly to generate DNA — around $1500 for 83 kilobytes. Instead, Grass thinks that we should consider what about us future historians might need to understand.

“If you look at how we look at the Middle Ages, it’s very influenced by what information has been stored. It’s very important that we get a relatively neutral documentation of our current time and store that,” Grass told New Scientist.

They will have to choose wisely — and hopefully skip the cat pictures.

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