Microsoft's New Molecular Controller Makes DNA Writing 1,000 Times Faster

Bring on the zettabyte era.
Chris Young
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Microsoft Research developed a new method that allows it to read and write much faster in DNA format, a blog post from the computing giant reveals. 

DNA storage has gained increased traction in recent years as it is a system that will not become antiquated like the floppy discs and CDs of decades past — each of us, after all, is a living representation of the data capacity and computational potential of DNA computing.

It will also help the computing industry meet the challenge of humanity's exponential desire for data storage.

Welcome to the zettabyte era

DNA storage offers incredible storage density at over 1 exabyte per cubic inch, meaning 9 zettabytes of information (one zettabyte constitutes one trillion gigabytes) could be stored in the space of a small refrigerator. According to Microsoft, the medium might also have a lower carbon footprint than traditional computer storage. 

The big obstacle to DNA storage so far is that scientists have only been able to successfully synthesize small amounts of DNA, and at slow speeds — though researchers at Northwestern University did recently announce a new method that only takes hours rather than days.

Now, in the new blog post, Bichlien Nguyen and Karin Strauss of Microsoft Research detailed a new proof-of-concept molecular controller, or, a "tiny DNA storage writing mechanism on a chip." In experiments, the controller successfully demonstrated the ability to "pack DNA-synthesis spots three orders of magnitude more tightly than before," meaning it is a thousand times faster than previous examples, the researchers explained.

Reducing the stratospheric cost of DNA storage

The Microsoft team collaborated with the University of Washington at the Molecular Information Laboratory (MISL) to devise the new method, which is detailed in a paper in the journal Science Advances. The scientists say their new method increases the writing throughput which, in turn, will greatly reduce the cost of writing synthetic DNA code. This is crucial, as recent estimations show that prices for synthesizing 1 megabit of information can reach up to $3,500.

According to the team of scientists, the new method could help to enable commercial DNA storage in the future, which would help the world meet the ever-increasing demand for data storage. As a point of reference, a recent report by the International Data Corporation indicates that there will be a 20.4 percent year-over-year growth in demand for data storage, which will reach close to 9 zettabytes worldwide by 2024. 

DNA storage does still have a long way to go, and several obstacles to overcome. In fact, it is not, by any means, a guarantee that we will ever see commercial DNA storage. To this end, Microsoft is also working on the development of holographic data storage with its Project Silica, which also promises to ease our collective way into the zettabyte era. 

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