Microsoft is buying 10 million molecules of custom DNA from a San Francisco startup

Jurassic Park Mr DNA
Mr. DNA from ‘Jurassic Park.’ Universal via YouTube

Microsoft is buying 10 million strands of
long oligonucleotides — laboratory-made molecules of DNA — from San Francisco startup Twist Bioscience, the companies announced today.
It seems that Microsoft is exploring the idea of using DNA molecules as a way to store massive amounts of data. Unlike hard drives, Blu-Ray discs, or pretty much any current storage technology, DNA stays intact and readable for as long as two thousand years.

Better yet, Microsoft Research estimates that one cubic millimetre of DNA can store one exabyte, or one billion gigabytes of data. That’s important as the rise of the smartphone era means we’re generating more photos, video, text, and audio than ever before, making this an important research area for Microsoft.

“As our digital data continues to expand exponentially, we need new methods for long-term, secure data storage,” says Microsoft Research’s Doug Carmean in the press release.

The technology is a long way away from ready for commercial products, so you won’t see a DNA-powered smartphone any time soon. But Microsoft says that the potential is clearly there, and that a test done with Twist Bio last fall went well, with 100% of its data encoded and later retrieved into the test DNA.

Twist Bioscience, which makes synthetic, storage-ready DNA, says in that press release that costs for this technology are getting lower all the time. That means we’re not that far away from an era where long-term data storage isn’t done on discs or drives, but in strands of customised organic material. Which is good, because current technology is struggling to keep pace.

To pursue that goal, Twist has raised $131 million from investors including Boris Nikolic, one of Bill Gates’ chief science advisors at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

And while preserved flies in amber don’t actually carry DNA like in “Jurassic Park,” it’s still a useful way to think about the potential of the technology: Consider the dinosaur DNA that they were able to recover in the movie as a USB flash drive from 65.5 million years ago. Life, like technology, finds a way.

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