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DNA Storage in a Yottabyte Era

By KIM BELLARD

Did you know we are living in the Zettabyte Era? Honestly, did you even know what a zettabyte is? Kilobytes, gigabytes, maybe even terabytes, sure, but zettabytes? Well, if you ran data centers you’d know, and you’d care because demand for data storage is skyrocketing (all those TikTok videos and Netflix shows add up). Believe it or not, pretty much all of that data is still stored on magnetic tapes, which have served us well for the past sixty some years but at some point, there won’t be enough tapes or enough places to store them to keep up with the data storage needs.

That’s why people are so keen on DNA storage – including me.

A zettabyte, for the record, is one sextillion bytes. A kilobyte is 1000 bytes; a zettabyte is 10007. Between gigabytes and zettabytes, by powers of 1000, come terabytes, petabytes, and exabytes; after zettabyte comes yottabytes. Back in 2016, Cisco announced we were in the Zettabyte Era, with global internet traffic reaching 1.2 zettabytes. We’ll be in the Yottabyte Era before the decade is out.

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First, Do Net Harm?

Recently, the US Preventative Services Task Force reiterated its recommendation that women not undergo routine screening for ovarian cancer. This was remarkable, not simply because it was a recommendation against screening, but because the task force was making the recommendation again, and this time even stronger.

The motivation for the recommendation was simple: a review of years’ worth of data indicates that most women are more likely to suffer harm because of false alarms than they are to benefit from early detection. These screenings are a hallmark of population medicine—an archetypal form of medicine that does not attempt to distinguish one individual from another. Moving beyond the ritualistic screening procedures could help reduce the toll of at least $765 billion of wasted health care costs per year.

We already know the common changes in the DNA sequence that identify people who have higher risk of developing ovarian, breast or prostate cancer and most other types of cancer. Consumers can now readily obtain this information via personal genomic companies like 23andMe or Pathway Genomics. But we need to do much more DNA sequencing to find the less common yet even more important variations—those which carry the highest risk of a particular cancer. Such research would be easy to accomplish if it were given top priority and it would likely lead to precision screening. Only a small fraction of individuals would need to have any medical screening. What’s more, it will protect hundreds of thousands of Americans from being unnecessarily harmed each year.

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