Microsoft Corporation Exploring Next-Generation DNA Data Storage Tech

  • Microsoft is investing in DNA data storage in partnership with Twist Bioscience.
  • A gram of DNA can store one trillion gigabytes of digital data for thousands of years, with little maintenance.
  • Data storage is becoming a bottleneck for the computing sector as a whole, and Microsoft wants to provide solutions.

Microsoft (NSDQ:MSFT) is investing in DNA data storage, an emerging technology that takes advantage of genetic material’s durability and efficiency for information storage. The company has agreed to purchase ten million long oligonucleotides - DNA or RNA molecules - from Twist Bioscience to encode digital data.

“As our digital data continues to expand exponentially, we need new methods for long-term, secure data storage,” said Microsoft's Doug Carmean. “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.”

The Twist Bioscience website notes that affordable DNA sequencing and the company’s scalable silicon-based DNA synthesis technique permit using DNA as a viable data storage option. Using DNA as an archival technology avoids two key limitations of traditional digital storage media: limited lifespan and low data density.

“Today, the vast majority of digital data is stored on media that has a finite shelf life and periodically needs to be re-encoded. DNA is a promising storage media, as it has a known shelf life of several thousand years, offers a permanent storage format and can be read for continuously decreasing costs,” said Twist Bioscience CEO Emily M. Leproust. “Our silicon-based DNA synthesis platform offers unmatched scale and product quality that vastly accelerates the ability to write DNA at a cost enabling data storage.  We are thrilled to work with Microsoft, and University of Washington researchers, to address the growing challenge of digital data storage.”

A commentary on the Twist blog notes that the ability to encode digital information in strands of DNA is a major advancement in archival technology because DNA molecules are not susceptible to many limitations of traditional digital storage media. "And this is why we and Microsoft are so excited about our joint research," continues the company. "Where the very best conventional storage media may preserve their digital content for a hundred years under precise conditions, synthetic DNA preserves its information content for hundreds or thousands of years."

"They give us the DNA sequence, we make the DNA from scratch,” said Leproust in a phone interview, IEEE Spectrum reports. Once the data has been encoded in DNA, Twist will send it back to Microsoft for testing. The company can experiment with using the DNA for long-term data storage (there are ways to simulate the passing of millennia) and reading the data back out from molecular DNA storage. Interestingly, Twist doesn’t know what data it’s encoding. “We don’t have the decoder key, so I have no idea what it is,” said Leproust. Microsoft hasn’t divulged that information either.

The idea of storing data in DNA has intrigued researchers for decades and got a serious push forward in 2012 when Harvard geneticist George Church encoded an entire book in DNA.

While electronic storage media need specialized maintenance, power, regular hardware refreshes, and cooling systems, DNA storage doesn't require active maintenance or specialized space, and it is incredibly compact.  An individual nucleotide measures only one-third of a cubic nanometer (one billionth of one billionth of a cubic meter), and a single gram of DNA can store almost a zettabyte of digital data (one trillion gigabytes). It appears that less than twenty grams of DNA could store all the digital data in the world. Furthermore, DNA data storage could last up to 2,000 years without deterioration.

The quantity of digital data that needs to be stored is doubling approximately every two years in a trend similar to the "Moore's Law"of exponentially increasing performance of data processing hardware, but advances in storage technologies are lagging behind. Therefore, data storage technology is becoming a bottleneck for the computing sector as a whole, a problem which Microsoft wants to address with this bold bet on next-generation, DNA-powered data archives.

The Motley Fool notes that Microsoft's investment in Twist Bioscience could be among the first signals of a revolution in data storage systems. While DNA storage isn't likely to impact Microsoft's financial performance any time soon, investors should take note because of its huge future commercial potential, and continue to consider Microsoft's stock as a buy-and-hold.

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