July 8, 2016
Microsoft's DNA Data Storage Encoded 200MB Of Books, Databases, And OK Go Video

Microsoft and the University of Washington claim that they have broken the DNA data storage world record, after successfully storing and retrieving about 200 megabytes worth of information using synthetic DNA molecules.

Microsoft Research turned heads last April when the division purchased a load of synthetic DNA from San Francisco startup Twist Bioscience. The purchase included some 10 million strands of long oligonucleotides, which are synthetic DNA molecules that are cooked up in a lab, rather than obtained from a natural source.

According to Business Insider, the DNA was intended for use in data storage experiments due to the longevity of DNA and the tremendous potential for storage capacity. Unlike every current type of storage media, DNA data storage doesn't have any meaningful shelf life, as estimates say that data stored via this method could remain readable for up to 10,000 years.

Luis Ceze, one of the lead researchers on the joint University of Washington and Microsoft project, confirmed these as the primary reasons to explore DNA data storage.

"The world is producing data at an incredible rate, and storage technologies need to keep up," Professor Ceze said. "DNA is a remarkable storage molecule. It is millions of times denser than other storage media, it is incredibly durable (think millennia) and it never becomes obsolete. We humans, as DNA-based life forms, will always be interested in reading and writing DNA."

The longevity of artificially produced DNA data storage may or may not match that millennia-long shelf life of DNA strands, but Professor Ceze and the rest of the joint research team have already demonstrated just how much information can be stored on the molecular level.

In an initial test, the team successfully stored and retrieved 200 MB worth of data in artificial DNA strands.

"We stored 200 MB of data. This experiment led to several important breakthroughs that improved our ability to manipulate more complex pools of synthetic DNA. It allowed us to better understand what kinds of errors crop up and how to deal with them."
The act of successfully encoding and retrieving that much information from DNA data storage is remarkable, but the amount of physical space taken up by the DNA used in the process is especially of note in a world where storage media has trended smaller and smaller over the years.

According to Douglas Carmean, the partner architect from Microsoft who oversaw the joint research project, the DNA used to encode 200 MB worth of data was physically "much smaller than the tip of a pencil."

Microsoft cautions that while this type of DNA data storage could fit all the data from the Internet "into a shoebox," there are still hurdles to overcome.

Think of the amount of data in a big data center compressed into a few sugar cubes. Or all the publicly accessible data on the Internet slipped into a shoebox. That is the promise of DNA storage – once scientists are able to scale the technology and overcome a series of technical hurdles.
Some of the files that were stored include the Universal Declaration of Human rights in over 100 languages, 100 of the top Project Gutenberg books, the Crop Trust's seed database, and even OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass" music video.

Asked why the team chose to encode an OK Go video, Professor Ceze indicated that the team wanted to include an HD video file and that "This Too Shall Pass" was picked due to a similarity between DNA and the Rube Goldberg machines featured in the video.

"We wanted to store something creative and in a modern format," Professor Ceze said. "And OK Go, being such a creative band, was a perfect fit. Also, there is an interesting connection between Rube Goldberg machines and molecular biology. Nature has produced incredible molecular machines, and when looked at closely enough might resemble a very complex but very reliable Rube Goldberg machine."

Do you think that DNA data storage will ever become a mainstream way to store information, or is the idea of storing the entirety of human knowledge in a shoebox just a pipe dream?

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