We may be one step closer to storing data in DNA

Originally published on December 15, 2021 11:27 am

Researchers at Microsoft have developed a faster way to write data into DNA — a biological alternative to the bits on a hard drive.

Bichlien H. Nguyen et al, Scaling DNA data storage with nanoscale electrode wells

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By one recent estimate, the human race creates or copies 175 exabytes of data every day. That's 175 billion gigabytes. And internet giants like Google and Facebook are racing to keep up.

MARK BATHE: They're building these exabyte data centers that are extremely expensive. So they cost, you know, billions of dollars to build and maintain.


That's Mark Bathe of MIT. He says someday we'll reach a bottleneck. So he and others are looking at a comparatively archaic information storage technology, DNA.

BATHE: All the data in the world could fit in your coffee cup that you're drinking in the morning if it were stored in DNA.

SHAPIRO: DNA is dense, he says. And unlike tapes or CDs rotting in your garage, DNA preserves very well under the right conditions. Scientists have pulled DNA that's more than a million years old from the molars of frozen Siberian mammoths.

KELLY: So how does this work? Well...

KARIN STRAUSS: As we learned in biology, we think of DNA as the double helix, right? And each side of the double helix is a sequence of what we call bases - the A, T, Cs and Gs.

KELLY: Karin Strauss of Microsoft Research explains that the DNA used in data storage is not extracted from living things. Scientists make it in the lab. And they convert a stream of bits - ones and zeroes - into the A's, T's, C's and G's of the genetic code.

SHAPIRO: Her team has shown that it is theoretically possible to write DNA data at speeds of up to megabytes per second.

STRAUSS: That is the kind of throughput that we see in archival storage devices today. And so we think that DNA storage will eventually be competitive with those technologies.

SHAPIRO: Their work appears in the journal Science Advances.

KELLY: Mark Bathe of MIT was not involved in the study, but he says if scientists can solve problems of cost and efficiency...

BATHE: Then, you know, the sky's the limit in terms of just storing everything that we ever wanted to and ever will need to.

SHAPIRO: The question is whether we really need all those tweets and TikTok videos and spam emails to live on in perpetuity.

KELLY: No (laughter).

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