Microsoft’s latest breakthrough could make DNA-based data centers possible

As more and more data is created, engineers are busy searching for ways to maximize the amount of information that can be stored per square foot, so that we don’t wind up filling every last inch of the planet with cavernous data centers. Out of all the possible approaches, one of the most promising is storing data in DNA, which can provide a storage medium that is orders of magnitude smaller than today’s mainstream storage methods.

To help work toward this goal, Microsoft researchers have teamed up with the University of Washington for a groundbreaking proof-of-concept test. In a new demo, researchers from both entities successfully encoded the word “hello” into snippets of fabricated DNA — and then turned it back into digital data using a fully automated system.

“This is showing that end-to-end automation is possible for DNA data storage,” Luis Ceze, a professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, told Digital Trends. “Without automation, it would never be viable.”

The advantage of DNA coding doesn’t just reside in its higher data density, compared with other storage methods. It can also be a much longer-term storage solution, as evidenced the fact that DNA is still discovered from tens of thousands of years ago in artifacts like mammoth tusks and bones from early humans. The same could prove true for DNA-based storage in data centers. However, while the theory works the same, it’s worth pointing out that the current demonstration was carried out using synthetic DNA created in a laboratory, as opposed to DNA from humans or other living creatures.

As exciting as this work is, don’t expect data centers to switch over to DNA storage in the immediate future, though.

“We’re currently at the research stage, and this was an engineering exercise to understand the challenges related to building hybrid molecular-electronic systems,” Karin Strauss, principal researcher at Microsoft, told us. “It’s still early days; we’re learning so much and excited to see what could be possible. We take an end-to-end system approach to how we look at the technology, and we have a very strong team working on it. We feel lucky that our respective institutions are willing to invest in innovation.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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