Scientists working at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington are aiming to store digital information on DNA.
The team at Microsoft Research believes that DNA itself is an evolved medium for storing information.
The team is trying to use DNA for storing digital information. It has already written about 200 megabytes (MB) of data into DNA. It wants to find ways in which companies and institutions can store huge amounts of archive information at least for some decades.
Computers storing archive data must be stored either on hard disk drives and on magnetic tapes today and they need to be replaced every few years. During every replacement, data needs to be transferred from the old drives to new drives and from old tapes to new tapes. The team says that this practice poses a problem.
As we progress technologically, our ways of storing and retrieving data will also change. International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that the worldwide total of stored digital data will hit 16 trillion gigabytes next year, most of it stored in huge data centers.
Microsoft Research, project lead researcher Karin Strauss says that DNA medium the size of a shoebox could hold data equivalent of roughly 100 giant data centers.
Apart from being a very good medium, DNA is also remarkably durable. DNA from the bones of ancient humans was recovered at a Spanish cave, where they have been lying for more than 400,000 years. In contrast, the magnetic tapes used for long term data storage can last only for few decades before they start degrading.
DNA stores genetic information in the form of four nucleotides or building blocks – abbreviated to four letter code A, C, T and G. These get arranged in specific sequences and deliver directions for creating specific proteins and specific cells.
Digital devices store information in binary format which involve sequences of 1s and 0s. According to the research team, converting digital information into DNA-based information will require clubbing two out of the four letter codes to represent 1 and clubbing the remaining two to represent 0.
Microsoft DNA data storage researcher and University of Washington associate professor Luis Ceze said: “One selling point is durability. Scientists can recover and read DNA sequences from fossils of Neanderthals and even older life forms.
“So as a storage medium, "it could last thousands and thousands of years."
But, there is an obstacle to DNA storage and it is the cost. It is costly because it requires making custom DNA molecules.
Microsoft did not reveal the cost of writing 200MB of data on DNA which required 1.5 billion bases. Twist Bioscience, which synthesised the DNA, typically charges 10 cents for each base.
Commercially available synthesis can cost not more than 0.04 cents per base and reading out a million bases could roughly cost a penny.
Strauss says that the cost of reading and writing on DNA could come down in the years to come. She believes that the falling costs are comparable to the falling cost of transistors which has been basis for the rise of computing innovation for about 50 years.