It holds the secrets to our personal genetic makeup, and if techies have their way it could soon hold all our digital information too.

Tech giant Microsoft is investing heavily in DNA as the newest way to store digital data. To do so, it has teamed up with a Silicon Valley start-up Twist Bioscience to buy 10 million short strands of DNA, called oligonucleotides, for the project. According to Twist Bioscience, which will also work with the University of Washington to develop the new storage, the quantity of digital data produced is doubling roughly every two years but storage capacity is not keeping up. DNA, it believes, could be useful for storing data that doesn’t have to be accessed too often.

“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,” commented Emily Leproust, chief executive of Twist Bioscience.

DNA data storage could last up to 2,000 years without deterioration, according to a recent presentation at the American Chemical Society. It is also compact. A single gramme of DNA can store almost a one trillion gigabytes (almost a zettabyte) of digital data.

For this project, Microsoft is taking a chunk of data that would normally be stored in a file on a hard drive, and translating it into the genetic code of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts, which represent the chemical building blocks of DNA. Then Twist Bioscience will manufacture the 10 million DNA strands with those sequences of letters. However, it doesn’t know what data is contained in the DNA it produces, as only Microsoft has the decoder key.

The technology is still in its infancy and is not yet cheap enough to be commercially viable. But costs are falling – the National Human Genome Research Institute spent some $2.7 billion sequencing an entire human genome for the first time. You can now get a phone app offering you your own personal genome sequencing for around $1,000. Twist reckons costs need to fall by about 10,000 times to make the technology cost effective – which Emily Leproust believes is achievable.

Doug Carmean, a Microsoft partner architect within the company’s Technology and Research organisation says: “As our digital data continues to expand exponentially, we need new methods for long-term, secure data storage. The initial test phase with Twist demonstrated that we could encode and recover 100% of the digital data from synthetic DNA. We’re still years away from a commercially viable product, but our early tests with Twist demonstrate that in the future we’ll be able to substantially increase the density and durability of data storage.”

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