Microsoft Has Built A Completely Automated DNA Data Storage

  • Researchers build the first automated system to store and retrieve data in artificial DNA. 
  • They stored and then retrieved the 5-byte message ‘HELLO’.
  • DNA-based system can store massive amounts of data in relatively less space and could last much longer than existing storage devices. 

We live in a world full of data and it is increasing at astonishing rates. According to the 6th edition of DOMO’s report, 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the last 2 years. Over 2.5 exabytes (or 2.5 million terabytes) of data are created each day, and this pace is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet of Things.

Microsoft is exploring techniques to efficiently store such enormous amounts of data. The company is currently working on molecular computing technologies to encrypt and retrieve data in fabricated DNA.

Compared to silicon-based chips, DNA can store a massive volume of digital information in relatively small space. It can pack all the data currently saved in a warehouse-sized datacenter into a space about the size of a matchbox.

In 2018, researchers at the University of Washington demonstrated a technique in which they were able to store 1GB of data (images, audio, videos, literary works) in synthetic DNA.

Recently, a research team at the University of Washington and Microsoft came up with an automated system to store and retrieve data in artificial DNA. This is the first time someone has demonstrated a complete automated system to keep information in DNA.

Using the prototype system, they stored and then retrieved the 5-byte message ‘HELLO’. Basically, they encoded the message into snippets of artificial DNA and transformed it back into digital data.

How Does It Work?

To store data in synthetic DNA molecules, several intermediate steps require manual action in the research lab. Automating those processes would make storage more affordable at a commercial scale. The objective of this study is to prove that it’s possible to achieve complete automation.

Reference: Nature | doi:10.1038/s41598-019-41228-8 | Microsoft

The system developed in this research converts digital data (‘zeros’ and ‘ones’) into building blocks of DNA (‘As’, ‘Ts’, ‘Cs’ and ‘Gs’). Then it utilizes a few off-the-shelf instruments to flow the essential chemicals and liquids into a synthesizer (creates and snippets of DNA) and to steer them into a container for storage.

Microsoft Automated DNA Data Storage
Credit: Microsoft

In order to retrieve the data, the system prepares the DNA (by adding other chemicals) and pushes it into other section via microfluidic pumps, where DNA sequences are read and converted back into digital data.

The team also built methods to carry out useful computations — such as search and retrieve only pictures that contain a green bicycle or an apple — using the molecules only, without converting the data back into a digital format.

A New Kind Of Computing System

Under proper conditions, DNA could last much longer than existing storage devices that degrade in a couple of decades. Since DNA-based systems use liquid chemicals to move molecules around — which is inherently different than today’s computing technologies that use electrons — they require completely new engineering solutions.

Read: A Nanoscale Tic-Tac-Toe Board Game Made Of DNA

This is a whole new level of computing techniques where molecules are used for storing data and electronics for handling and processing data. It definitely holds a lot of intriguing possibilities for the future.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is an experienced science and technology journalist interested in machines, AI, and space exploration. He received M.tech degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out what his latest project is, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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