A $10,000 prototype took 21 hours to convert “HELLO” into DNA and back. Microsoft’s fully automated $10,000 prototype. (Image credit: Microsoft)


We have a looming data problem that companies like Microsoft are looking to solve. As more and more of our lives are digitized and file sizes balloon, we are rapidly approaching the limit of some of our most-used storage mediums.


Physical storage media such as hard disk drives (HDDs) will eventually reach a peak data density due to the way they operate. An HDD uses spinning magnetic platters, or disks, that store data on magnetic grains while a device known as a read-and-write head either observes or alters the magnetic orientation of each grain. Our current technology is largely limited by interference from other magnetic grains on a disk, limiting how small each grain can be before it might start interfering with other grains.


Storage mediums such as HDDs also have an upper limit on how much data can be stored on them. In physics, this is known as the Bekenstein bound and it describes the amount of information that can be stored given a finite space and a finite amount of energy. DNA storage is, so far, the densest method of data storage being able to store roughly 700 terabytes per gram. In comparison to that, current commercial HDDs can store roughly 1.34 terabytes per square inch.


Microsoft’s $10,000 prototype aims to move toward a commercial application of DNA-based data storage. The prototype is a major step forward because it utilized a fully automated system to convert “HELLO” into bits of assembled DNA and then back into digital format. It may have taken 21 hours, but the fact that an automated system did this at all is major. We produce a massive amount of data that needs to be stored, and systems like HDDs are prone to eventual failure. One of the major points of failure in long-term data storage solutions is degradation.


Our current data storage mediums are fairly stable for upwards of a decade, but eventually, they can and will falter and need replacing. DNA storage can potentially last thousands or tens of thousands of years with little to no degradation. Kept in a proper environment, data stored via DNA could outlive the very people who stored it in the first place.


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