Microsoft is developing DNA technology that could revolutionize data storage by the end of the decade. Just last year they transmitted 200 megabytes of literary classics – 100 in total – onto DNA, and are now looking to use this knowledge to tackle one of our newest technological problems.
Our lives have been changed by the internet; everything is watched and everything is shared on this sprawling data network – but a data storage crisis seems to be on the horizon, with IBM estimating that 90 percent of all electronic data was made in the past two years. Karin Strauss, one Microsoft’s lead researchers, informs that “If you look at current projections, we can’t store all the information we want with devices at the cost that they are”.
Blame can be pointed at a lack of innovation in long-term data storage, being blatantly clear in the industry’s current physical leader, magnetic tape: essentially cassettes. They have remained on top since the 1950s, are cheap, and can now hold up to one terabyte of information, but scientists believe that a single gram of DNA could hold up to 215,000 terabytes.
The reasoning for this can be found in DNA’s incredible density. Just think of the legions of unicellular organisms that remain unseen by the naked eye. DNA makes up a nanoscopic part of each, but codes for their entirety. By harnessing this, Karin Strauss says that a shoe box worth of DNA could hold the same amount of information as 100 giant data centers.
Microsoft is developing DNA technology that could revolutionize data storage
More important is DNA’s ability to pass the test of time. Only in March last year was DNA of Neanderthal ancestors found in Spain’s Sima de los Huesos (otherwise known as ‘The Pit of Bones’) and dated to be over 430,000 years old. This is immortal compared to a magnetic tape’s 30-year lifespan. It must also be emphasized, however, that this DNA was found in a cave. Under supervised cool and dry conditions, it is thought that it could maintain its integrity for far longer.
“DNA won’t degrade over time like cassette tapes and CDs – if it does, we have bigger problems,” comments Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist from Columbia University.
The process adapted by Microsoft began with translating the language of computers, 0s and 1s, into the language of DNA: A, T, G and C – abbreviations for the building blocks of the genetic code. The DNA strands created were then superimposed on microchips and the information they held was later retrieved using a high speed sequencing machine.
They transposed 200 megabytes in total, but there’s quite a way to go before their method would be able to compete with other storage options. MIT Review stated that the materials alone would have cost at least 800,000 dollars on the open market, and Microsoft admit that their costs would have to fall by a factor of 10,000 to become a feasible option. But time is a bigger concern: taking the best part of three weeks, the monstrous 200 megabytes were slowly ticked down at 400 bytes per second. Microsoft appear undeterred by this, however, asserting that they still wish to pursue the method if they can somehow increase it to 100 megabytes per second.
The Human Genome Project, the first effort to sequence our genetic code, was a major international effort
And this may not be an unrealistic leap when bearing in mind that the time and costs of DNA sequencing have fallen drastically over recent years. The Human Genome Project, the first effort to sequence our genetic code, was a major international effort that stretched from 1990-2003 and cost approximately 3 billion dollars to achieve. Today there are a sleuth of companies that will sequence your genome in a matter of weeks for a couple thousand dollars.
They certainly seem confident, with Douglas Carmean, a partner architect at Microsoft Research, saying that the company aims for a “proto-commercial system in three years”. And with our rampant data usage, this should give us some comfort. The current storage media we have become used to is physically limited and can’t possibly keep up, but it appears DNA will continue to drive us forward.