Lastly, DNA doesn't degrade nearly as fast as plastic magnetic tapes or even the average solid state hard drive. It's possible to sequence DNA that is tens of thousands of years old. "Keep DNA cold, dry and dark and it lasts a long time," Birney said.
Goldman said he and Birney, who published their work in this week's Nature, got the idea while mulling over alternatives to electronic storage. "We were at the pub," he said at a press conference. "DNA is a very compact way to store information, and we realized we could do this."
Storing digital data by conventional methods doesn't exactly take up a lot of space these days. One can get a pocket-sized hard drive that stores a terabyte of information, equal to hold about 2,000 hours of music. But storing information on DNA means cramming 2,000 times as much data onto a sugar cube-sized device.
To get the information onto the DNA, the scientists first converted the data to the familiar ones and zeros of binary code. A computer program matched those numbers to one of the four building blocks of DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. Each of those chemicals, called a base is marked as an A, C, G, or T.