Cracking the code on DNA-based storage

Cracking the code on DNA-based storage

DNA -- the double-helix strands that encode the instructions for all known living organisms -- has long been seen as a possible storage medium for digital data. DNA can maintain data integrity for thousands of years, and it can pack nearly a zettabyte of information into a single gram of material.  And now researchers have taken an important step toward designing a real DNA-driven storage system.

Scientists at the University of Washington and Microsoft Research have tested a system that allows for true random access -- a stumbling block for previous DNA-based experiments.  The team successfully encoded four digital images into DNA snippets, then successfully retrieved the images without any data loss in the process.  The work was detailed in a paper presented at the April ACM International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems, or ASPLOS.

“How you go from ones and zeroes to As, Gs, Cs and Ts really matters because if you use a smart approach, you can make it very dense and you don’t get a lot of errors,” University of Washington Associate Professor Georg Seelig, a co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “If you do it wrong, you get a lot of mistakes.”

Microsoft's work on DNA storage apparently has other facets as well.  Twist Bioscience, a San Francisco-based company that has developed a scalable synthetic DNA manufacturing process, announced on April 27 that Microsoft has agreed to purchase 10 million DNA strands to encode digital data.  Twist CEO Emily M. Leproust said her firm's DNA synthesis platform "vastly accelerates the ability to write DNA at a cost enabling data storage."

Doug Carmean, an architect at Microsoft Research, said, "We’re still years away from a commercially viable product, but our early tests [show] we’ll be able to substantially increase the density and durability of data storage."

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN, as well as General Manager of Public Sector 360.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of, Schneider also helped launch the political site in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times,, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


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