Microsoft wants to store future data in DNA

1g of DNA could store 1 billion terabytes of data

Twist Bioscience, a biology startup, uses machines to produce large quantities of custom DNA. A client can design a DNA sequence and Twist will build it from scratch. This is useful for biologists who want to modify the genomes of organisms for scientific experiments.

Yesterday, Twist announced that 10 million strands of DNA have been purchased by Microsoft to investigate the possibilities of storing data in DNA. Just 1g of DNA could store 1 billion terabytes of data. Microsoft have translated a lot of data into the genetic code of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs and given it to Twist to store as DNA. The scientists at Twist don’t even know what data they’ve been given, which is probably a good idea for quality control. Emily M. Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience, thinks DNA could be a viable long-term storage system for DNA someday.

“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.”

In the right conditions, DNA is very robust. For example, German scientists successfully recovered a mitochondria genome using 300,000-year-old DNA from the remains of an extinct species of bear. In the controlled setting of Twist’s lab, the DNA shouldn’t deteriorate. A bigger problem in a lab setting is that DNA is notoriously easy to contaminate. In the context of data storage, contamination would be like randomly editing storage files without realising you had done it.

It’s still expensive to actually read the DNA sequence to retrieve the data but the cost has already gone from costing millions to thousands of pounds over a couple of decades. If this approach actually works, it could be viable for long-term storage within a decade or two. Microsoft are happy so far and claim that their initial tests with Twist worked and 100% of the data was recovered.

Don’t expect DNA inside your computer though, this will be more about industries storing absurd quantities of data long-term storage so that future archaeologists can figure out what we were up to.

Main image © NIBIB