Microsoft Plans to Use DNA as Your Next Hard Drive

Genetic information, or DNA, is in a certain way no different than binary data. It follows a set of codes and patterns based on a few starting variables. What comes out of these patterns could vary very wildly, from microbes to humans, and from command codes to HD video.

This is perhaps why Microsoft’s declaration about its use of DNA-based data isn’t all that surprising. The details to its commercialization, however, is the focus of the tech giant’s latest research update, and that is what makes it even more interesting today.

What Makes DNA-based Data So Good

Credit via Flickr by massmatt

The real decisive move to develop a data storage medium using DNA came half a decade ago, when Microsoft began to seriously tinker with the concept. The tech giant reintroduced the concept in a modern twist, which is now based on our current understanding of biology and computers. An old 2015 publication succinctly stated that  “using DNA to archive data is an attractive possibility because it is extremely dense and durable.

To rephrase that statement, Microsoft presented that DNA is a very promising potential data storage medium due to two very important factors:

  • DNA has a very high information density, claimed to be at one exabyte per cubic millimeter, which is about several orders of magnitude higher than even current high-density data storage mediums.
  • DNA can last for a very long time with the correct environmental factors, as evidenced by retrieved fossil records. At a minimum, it can even retain optimal data integrity for at least 500 years.

If a proper medium is to be developed that optimizes the use of DNA data storage, then it could mean a brand new revolution in computers. It could possibly make Moore’s Law (in terms of data storage) pretty much irrelevant, as it goes way beyond the scope of what current binary data-based hardware can physically and mechanically do.

Microsoft’s Big DNA Data Game

Credit via Flickr by the University of Michigan

With this general idea in mind, Microsoft updated its big DNA data plan with the next logical step: to commercialize using a built platform. According to a confirmed report published earlier this May, the company has just “formalized a goal of having an operational storage system based on DNA working inside a data center toward the end of this decade.”

To start, a prototype that is reminiscent of older computers of the late 20th century would represent a working concept. This would then be developed further as the technology gets more advanced, and as it closes the gap between its technical operability and economic feasibility.

As of now, Microsoft has currently achieved storing 200 MB (megabytes) of data on DNA strands. Not much, but its a start, and it directly proves that the concept is indeed workable. Remember, the very first hard disk drive back in 1956, the IBM 350 disk storage unit, only has a capacity equivalent to about 4 MB today, so we’re actually already off to a good headstart.

AGCT Versus 0’s and 1’s

Credit via Flickr by the National Human Genome Research Institute

One major reason why DNA data is far more dense is that it uses four separate DNA codes (A, G, C, and T), as opposed to the typical 1’s and 0’s of a binary data system. This makes it inherently more capable of creating more diverse base combinations to represent data.

This apparent advantage, however, is also what makes it very difficult to code, in terms of transferring already made binary data into DNA data. For one thing, the necessary chemical reactions required to manufacture the DNA strands with the provided information remains very laborious and process intensive. Storing the DNA strands is another issue, which further drives up the cost, and makes it far less economically feasible, at least when compared to the already market-optimized data storage mediums available today.

This is the reason why the aforementioned module/system/platform that optimizes the use of DNA data is very important. Microsoft firmly believes that as better encoding and storage systems for DNA are developed, the demand for such systems would eventually grow as well. After all, despite all development hurdles, data density remains as DNAs most constant plus factor. Thus, it is considerably possible to find practical uses for the technology even as it gets developed.

That, or some interstellar conspiracy could use it effectively to smuggle information in your meds.

Source: MIT

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