Technology has made it easier than ever to create content, be it photos, video, or an angsty Tumblr blog. You might have a device in your pocket right now that can record 4K video at dozens of megabits per second. In 2018, humanity created 33 zettabytes (that’s 33 billion petabytes), and that number will rise to about 175 zettabytes by 2025.
Some computer scientists are worried that our ability to create data will eventually outstrip our ability to store it, so Microsoft is looking at ways to store that data in DNA. The company has created the world’s first automated DNA read and write platform, as PCMag reports. It’s not as simple or portable as a flash drive, but it could be the future of data storage.
Scientists have explored DNA as a data storage medium for years because it’s incredibly information-dense. A single cell can store all the information needed to build a human. Combined, all the cells in your body can store many zettabytes of data encoded in strands of nucleic acid. Microsoft researchers also note that DNA storage could be the most future-proof medium we have. As long as there are humans, they will be interested in reading their own DNA.
In the past, storing data in DNA has been entirely manual — scientists creating custom strands of DNA in a lab. Microsoft and the University of Washington created a device that takes the data input and then encodes the binary in nucleic acid as adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. Those compounds are fed into the device in order where they incorporate themselves into strands of DNA. You end up with a jar of DNA in solution that encodes the data. To read it, the machine adds a “read master mix” to prepare the molecules. The machine pumps the solution into a DNA sequencer reads the DNA, and a computer decodes that into binary to recreate the original data.
This system works, and you don’t need someone manning a pipette to read and write DNA storage. However, it’s slow and complex. The team is experimenting with ways to improve the process with the so-called “purple drop” project, which uses custom computer chips to move liquids around on a surface. That could make the biological aspect of DNA storage accessible from software. This integration of electronics and molecular components could be what we need to make DNA storage feasible.