Microsoft is buying another 10 million strands of DNA for storage research

DNA storage could allow vast amounts of data to be stored for thousands of years.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

VIDEO: Microsoft bets big on DNA storage for digital data

Microsoft is buying another ten million strands of DNA to use as part of research into new ways of storing digital data.

The long-chain oligonucleotide strands of DNA will be used by researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington to encode digital data at high density.

DNA's main job, of course, is storing the genetic instructions governing the growth and development of all known living creatures -- something it has done for billions of years. Now scientists are trying to use that ability to store digital data too.

Microsoft made its initial purchase of DNA from Twist Bioscience a year ago, buying 10 million strands of synthetic DNA. Since then the organizations have improved storage density, and so reduced the cost of DNA digital data storage, by encoding more data per strand: in July last year the Microsoft and Washington researchers said they had stored a record 200MB of data on DNA in a space the size of a pencil tip.

"Importantly, not only does DNA provide a high density, very long-term solution to digital data storage, it requires very little energy at rest compared to today's storage technologies," said Luis Ceze, the University of Washington's Torode Family Career Development professor of computer science and engineering, and also one of the project's lead researchers.

"In addition, DNA will never become obsolete as an information storage medium, since we will always care about reading DNA. No more migration from disk to tape to denser tape," he added.

Karin Strauss, senior researcher at Microsoft and one of the project's lead researchers, noted that there are still many challenges to making DNA storage mainstream, but said the team are encouraged by the work so far.

"Demand for data storage has been growing at breakneck pace. Organizations and consumers who need to store a lot of data -- for example, medical data or personal video footage -- will benefit from a new long-term storage solution. We believe DNA may provide that answer," Strauss said.

Using DNA to archive data can avoids two key limitations of traditional digital storage media: limited lifespan and low data density. DNA data storage could last up to 2,000 years without deterioration, and researchers have shown that a few grams of DNA can store an exabyte of digital data, with improvements in storage density potentially boosting that to a zettabyte of digital data in a few grams of DNA.

However, for now it remains very slow to write the data -- storing a megabyte of data initially took University of Washington scientists a week -- and very expensive. There are plenty of other quirks of DNA to be overcome, but it's possible that DNA could eventually replace long-term storage media like tape.

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