Can Nature Help Us Solve an Impending Data Storage Crisis?

Will the cold storage data center of the future include a DNA synthesizer? According to a new research paper by the University of Washington and Microsoft, it’s a strong possibility.

Today, we generate data faster than we can increase storage capacity. The volume of digital data worldwide is projected to exceed 16 zettabytes sometime next year, the paper’s authors wrote, citing a forecast by IDC Research. “Alarmingly, the exponential [data] growth rate easily exceeds our ability to store it, even when accounting for forecast improvements in storage technologies,” they said.

A big portion of the world’s data sits in archival storage, where the densest medium currently is tape, offering maximum density of about 10 GB per cubic millimeter. One research project has demonstrated an optical disk technology that’s 10 times denser than tape.

But there’s another approach that promises storage density of 1 Exabyte per cubic millimeter, or eight orders of magnitude higher than tape. That approach is encoding data the same way nature encodes instructions for building every living thing on Earth: DNA.

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In addition to density, DNA storage addresses another big limitation of archival storage: longevity. Tape can hold data for 10 to 30 years before data integrity starts to corrode, and spinning disks are rated for three to five years. DNA’s observed half-life is more than 500 years in harsh environments, according to the paper.

The idea to store data in the form of synthetic DNA has been around for a long time, but the huge improvements in cost and efficiency of synthesizing and sequencing genes in recent years have made its feasibility a lot more probable. Its state of the art went from a 23-character message in 1999 to a 739 kB message in 2013.

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