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Microsoft looks to DNA as future of data storage

Wed 27 Apr 2016

Microsoft DNA

DNA has hugely intriguing qualities for researchers exploring the future of data storage. The genetic material lasts several thousands of years and is extremely compact – a single gram of DNA can hold up to a zettabyte, or a trillion gigabytes, of digital data.

Microsoft has now furthered its interest in the cutting-edge technique, acquiring San Francisco-based biotech startup Twist Bioscience with the aim of developing its own synthetic DNA as a viable digital storage medium.

“Today, the vast majority of digital data is stored on media that has a finite shelf life and periodically needs to be re-encoded,” said founder and CEO of Twist Emily Leproust, in today’s release. “DNA is a promising storage media, as it… offers a permanent storage format and can be read for continuously decreasing costs,” she added.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Leproust explained that using DNA’s enormous storage capacity, “you could fit all the knowledge in the whole world inside the trunk of your car.”

As part of broader DNA research, Microsoft is taking samples of data that are typically stored on hard drives, and translating them into genetic code (As, Cs, Gs and Ts) to represent the chemical building blocks of DNA. Twist is then manufacturing the 10 million DNA strands required by these letter sequences.

Leproust explained that once the encrypted data has been transformed into invisible molecules in a test tube, it is then delivered back to Microsoft for testing and further research into long-term storage solutions and read-out, decoding techniques.

Doug Carmean, a Microsoft partner architect in the tech giant’s Technology and Research unit commented in the release: “The initial test phase with Twist demonstrated that we could encode and recover 100 percent of the digital data from synthetic DNA.

We’re still years away from a commercially- viable product, but our early tests with Twist demonstrate that in the future we’ll be able to substantially increase the density and durability of data storage.”

As we generate forever increasing amounts of data, scientists are racing to discover reliable and durable technologies to store away the world’s information. The idea of using DNA was recently highlighted as a potential solution by Harvard geneticist George Church, who encoded an entire book in DNA in 2012.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 15.42.15Over the past twenty years DNA read-out is becoming much simpler and has dropped dramatically in price. The cost of sequencing a complete human genome has fallen from about $1 billion (approx. £700 million) in 2001 to around $1,000 today (see right). Despite this reduction, costs still have to come down significantly before the biotech is considered as a true data storage alternative – by about 10,000 times, suggests Leproust.


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