How Much Data is in a Cell?- Post Thanksgiving Fun

by Bradley Miller on December 1, 2009

Neuron cells, with nuclei colored blue.  Just a pretty picture.

Neuron cells, with nuclei colored blue. Just a pretty picture.

It’s been a rough week so far – been stumbling out of my Thanksgiving food coma. So, it seems like the right time for a light, quick and fun post. Last week I came across a really interesting site from the genetics group at the University of Utah. It is a fantastic graphical comparison from a coffee bean on down to a carbon atom. Go play with it – it’s pretty fun!

Here's a good diagram of the cell and it's structures.  The nucleus is the 'blue ball' (#2) in the picture.

Here's a good diagram of the cell and it's structures. The nucleus is the 'blue ball' (#2) in the picture. This is where DNA is stored - each cell in the body has a nucleus, and each nucleus has a copy of the human genome.

The site made me think about size relativity on a cellular scale with respect to the human genome. Within each of our cells is a structure called the nucleus. It’s the structure that contains all of our DNA – some people think of the nucleus as the “brains” of the cell, but I actually think of it more like a hard disk – the nucleus stores all of the cell’s important information. It stores our “code.”

So, here’s where the number fun starts. The nucleus of a human cell is on average 6μm (or 6×10-6 meters) in diameter. VERY small – that’s not a whole lot of space to hold anything. Yet, at a bare minimum the complete human genome is about 20GB (that’s a fairly conservative number – some people estimate the genome at between 50 and 100GB of info). That means that the nucleus stores all of our DNA, in just 137μm3 of volume. That translates to just about 0.18GB in just 1μm3 of nucleus.

Here’s where we can make things a little more interesting. In comparison, if a modern hard drive were to have the same “data density” as a cell’s nucleus, one typical hard drive would be able to store almost 6.9 × 1013 GB of data. That’s the equivalent of all the data on the internet 140 times over. Put another way – if our hard drives had the same “data density” as a cell’s nucleus the typical hard drive would be able to store 140 internets. Thems a lot of tubes!

Those numbers are pretty hard to grasp, I’ll admit that. But, the bottom line is that each of the cells in your body contains at least 20GB worth of information! That’s crazy considering you’re comprised of almost 10 TRILLION cells. I feel like this is one of those “just how big is the universe” type questions, but it’s all completely within the human body.

Even though these numbers are really hard to grasp, it does illustrate to me that the body stores its genetic information in an incredibly efficient and amazing manner. That and our information technology has a long way to go before it matches the efficiency and capacity of the human body. Just a bit of a brain teaser and fun following a holiday weekend!

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Garrett December 16, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Holy crap! Awesome.

2 Lidiya December 28, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Hmmm…Never thought of it, but seems reasonable; although I have to admit that the other 10 trillion cells are just repetitive copies of a single cell. This does bring the total amount of GB data stored in the human body down.

Amazing website also…I have been forwarded to it from the forbes.com blog and like it a lot. Hope to visit it regularly also.

3 Bradley Miller December 29, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Lidiya – interesting opinions and thanks for visiting! I kinda understand what you mean about the 10 trillion other cells, but I’m wondering why you think that makes it all that less impressive. My bet is that we’re going to find out that the dna content in our cells aren’t all the 100% same. Through mutations and epigenetic changes that ‘same’ code can be interpreted much differently.

4 parascientifica.com June 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm

You can calculate how much data is stored in a given amount of Kg of Human tissue here: http://parascientifica.com/humandata.php

The amount of data in one Kg is:
Data in exabytes = 868

To give you an idea, this is equal to:
273,066,666,666,667 mp3′s,
198,581,560,284 dvd’s and
37,333,333,333 Blu-ray disks!

5 alexis sullivan September 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm

wow i would never of thought that 10 trillion cells are in a single cell omg !!!!!!

6 fiona February 23, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Thats just mind-boggling! Why and how could it assemble itself ? Even if it assembled itself slowly, how would it know what was and wasnt a mistake ? It makes me have to believe in God.. thats just awesome!

7 Brian K. Daniels January 5, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Assuming that the minimum amount of information to define a fully grown body is less than that in the single cell from which it originated we can conclude that once the technology for diss-assembly and re-construction is developed a capsule for low energy rapid “pseudo” teleportation could be much smaller than the nucleus of a human cell. Especially since the chromosomes are 2/3 protein and only 1/3 DNA.

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