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Microsoft Sets DNA Data-Storage Record: 200 Megabytes

Researchers store Ok Go! music video, great works of literature, and more in a dab of DNA

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Pink smear at the bottom of a test tube is DNA encoding 200 megabytes of data. A pencil tip beside it for comparison
Digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones can be stored in the faint pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube.
Photo: Tara Brown/University of Washington

Three weeks ago, we reported on a meeting of the minds in Virginia, where experts discussed the plausibility and requirements of using DNA as a hard drive. As the demand for data storage steadily grows, especially in biomedicine, the dense nucleic acid provides a promising new data depot.

At the time of the meeting, a source told us the attendees concluded that the “ambitious goal” of a prototype DNA storage machine was “possible” within five to seven years. Now, it seems they were a bit conservative with that timeline: Yesterday, researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington announced a new record for the amount of data stored in (and read back out of) synthetic DNA strands.

In a dab of DNA smaller than the tip of a pencil, the team stored 200 megabytes of data—a thousand times more DNA storage capacity than was possible a year ago, they say. “Think of the amount of data in a big data center compressed into a few sugar cubes,” Microsoft proclaimed in a press release. “Or all the publicly accessible data on the Internet slipped into a shoebox.”

In those helical threads of biological material, the team encoded an eclectic range of information: A high-definition version of the popular Rube Goldberg Machine video by the band OK Go!, other forms of digital art, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in more than 100 languages, the top 100 books of Project Gutenberg, and a seed database from the nonprofit Crop Trust.

At this rate, someday soon we’ll all be reaching over our thumb drives to grab a test tube.

IEEE Spectrum’s Eliza Strickland explains how DNA data storage works here.

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