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In 2018, scientists from Microsoft Research and the University of Washington achieved a new milestone: They discovered how to create random access memory on DNA at scale. They encoded 200 megabytes of data on human DNA—including 35 video, image, audio, and text files ranging from 29 kilobytes to 44 megabytes. In 2021, the team built a molecular controller and DNA writer on a chip, with a PCIe interface. Microsoft used the system to store a version of the company’s mission statement in DNA: “Empowering each person to store more!” The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a group within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, intends to store an exabyte of data—roughly a million terabyte-size hard drives—in a blob of DNA. It’s a weird branch of biological science, yes, but human computing has practical purposes: DNA could solve our future data storage problems. It’s durable, too: Evolutionary scientists routinely study DNA that is thousands of years old to learn more about our human ancestors. Chinese scientists at Tianjin University stored 445KB of data in an E. coli cell. Twist Bioscience discovered how to make hyperdense, stable, affordable DNA storage. By depositing microscopic drops of nucleotides onto silicon chips, Twist’s robots can create a million short strands of DNA at a time. The end result will be a tiny, pill-size container that could someday hold hundreds of terabytes of capacity. Now, a consortium called the DNA Data Storage Alliance is developing an interoperable storage ecosystem using DNA as a data storage medium. Founders include Microsoft, as well as Western Digital, Twist, and Illumina. Members of the consortium, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, Seagate, FujiFilm, Dell Technologies, Lenovo, IBM, and the University of Arizona’s Center for Applied Nanobioscience and Medicine, are hoping to write megabytes of data per second on synthetic DNA that will be readable for thousands of years.

Using DNA to store data

KEY TRENDS

A New Way to Probe DNA