Microsoft helps found an industry alliance to advance DNA data storage systems

Alan Boyle
·3-min read
Pencil and test tube of DNA
All the movies, images, emails and other digital data from hundreds of smartphones can be stored in the pink smear of DNA at the end of the test tube seen at right. (Tara Brown Photography via UW)

Microsoft is teaming up with other companies to form an alliance to advance the field of DNA data storage, which promises to revolutionize the way vital records are kept for the long haul.

The founding members of the DNA Data Storage Alliance, unveiled today at the Flash Memory Summit, include Microsoft as well as Twist Bioscience, Illumina and Western Digital. Twist Bioscience has been partnering with Microsoft and the University of Washington for years on projects aimed at harnessing synthetic DNA for data storage.

Microsoft Research and UW’s Molecular Information Systems Lab have already demonstrated a fully automated DNA-based data storage and retrieval system — and in league with Twist, they’ve shown that their system can store a gigabyte of data in a DNA-based archive.

The UW lab is among 10 other organizations that have followed the founders’ lead and joined the alliance.

“We’re encouraged by the potential for more sustainable data storage with DNA and look forward to collaborating with others in the industry to explore early commercialization of this technology,” Karin Strauss, senior principal researcher at Microsoft, said in a news release.

The alliance aims to develop an industry roadmap for ensuring interoperability between different DNA systems, and help establish the foundations of a cost-effective commercial ecosystem for DNA-based archiving. It’ll develop specific use cases for various markets as part of a plan to educate the wider data storage community about the technology’s advantages.

DNA is best-known as the instruction set for life, with a code consisting of four chemical “letters”: adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. Synthetic DNA data storage techniques don’t use that code for biological purposes. Instead, they take advantage of DNA’s letters to encode files ranging from plain text to high-definition movies.

Such techniques can open the way for ultra-high-density storage: For example, 10 full-length movies can be stored in a volume the size of a single grain of salt. And when the DNA is encased in pellets or glass beads, the data can be stored reliably for millennia. The Arch Mission Foundation plans to send such a DNA data archive to the moon as early as next year.

In its predictions for future tech trends, Gartner projects that 30% of digital businesses will mandate trials of DNA data storage techniques by 2024, due to the anticipated exponential growth of data.

“There is an unmet need for a new long-term archival storage medium that keeps up with the rate of digital data growth,” said Steffen Hellmold, Western Digital’s vice president for corporate strategic initiatives.

“We estimate that almost half of the data storage solutions shipped in 2030 will be used to archive data as the overall temperature of data is cooling down,” Hellmold said. “We are committed to providing a full portfolio of storage solutions addressing the demand for hot, warm and cold storage.”

Emily Leproust, CEO and co-founder of Twist Bioscience, said DNA could fill the bill.

“DNA is an incredible molecule that, by its very nature, provides ultra-high-density storage for thousands of years,” she said. “By joining with other technology leaders to develop a common framework for commercial implementation, we drive a shared vision to build this new market solution for digital storage.”

In addition to the founders, these 10 organizations were listed today as members of the DNA Data Storage Alliance, and more organizations are being recruited:

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