Microsoft device to store digital data as DNA

The machine converts electronic bits to DNA and back without a person involved in a bid to replace data centers

Photo: Microsoft Using the proof-of-concept DNA storage device, the researchers demonstrated its write and read capabilities by encoding the word 'hello' in snippets of DNA and converting it back to data.

Microsoft is on its way to replacing optical-storage systems like Facebook's Blue-ray disc-based cold storage by booting up the first “DNA drive” for storing data. Developed by the tech giant and researchers from the University of Washington, the photocopier sized device now could successfully automate the process of translating digital information into DNA and back to bit.

So far DNA data storage has been carried out by hand in the lab, but this is officially world's first automated DNA storage device. What it represents is a system of liquids, tubes, syringes, and electronics around a benchtop.The unit, as described in Nature, also consists of computers with encoding and decoding software that translate digital ones and zeros into DNA's four bases: A, C, T, G. There's also a DNA synthesis module and a DNA preparation and sequencing module, between which sits a vessel where DNA is stored.

And in its first run, the $10,000 prototype converted "HELLO" into DNA. The device first encoded the bits (1's and 0's) into DNA sequences (A's, C's, T's, G's). It then synthesized the DNA and stored it as a liquid. Next, the stored DNA was read by a DNA sequencer. Finally, the decoding software translated the sequences back into bits. The 5-byte message took 21 hours to convert back and forth, but the researchers have already identified a way to reduce the time required by 10 to 12 hours. They've also suggested ways to reduce the cost by several thousand dollars by cutting out sensors and actuators.

And while there's room for improvement, Microsoft hopes this proof-of-concept will advance DNA storage technology. The big idea behind all this is that such synthetic DNA could significantly reduce the space required to store the world's growing data, causing the next big leap in long-term data storage. For example, in nucleotide form HELLO (01001000 01000101 01001100 01001100 01001111 in bits) yielded approximately 1 mg of DNA, and just 4 micrograms were retained for sequencing. As Technology Review notes, at that rate, all of the information stored in a warehouse-sized data center could fit into a few standard-size dice. Once the technique is perfected, it could also store data much longer than we're currently able to. Or as Microsoft claims, 215 petabytes of data could last for up to 2,000 years.

"Our ultimate goal is to put a system into production that, to the end user, looks very much like any other cloud storage service – bits are sent to a data center and stored there and then they just appear when the customer wants them," Microsoft Principal Researcher Karin Strauss commented. "To do that, we needed to prove that this is practical from an automation perspective."   

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