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UW, Microsoft researchers learning to store data in DNA

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) strands from a double helix model on display at the Science Museum April 23, 2003 in London. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

The last time Dave Ross spoke with Luis Ceze at the University of Washington, he was researching how to store photos and documents by translating computer code into artificial DNA.

Two years later, the team has automatized the entire DNA storage process, they can save a full gigabyte of information, and they are able to extract that information back out from the DNA in just a few hours.

The project is a collaboration between the University of Washington and Microsoft, and Ceze is a lead researcher alongside Karin Strauss and Doug Carmean.

It could revolutionize the way we store data, and it is especially timely as we begin to run out of literal room on earth for everyone’s photos and PowerPoint presentations.

“Just think of it, what typically takes whole data centers, whole buildings the size of a Walmart can fit in a sugar cube,” Ceze said. “DNA gives us the ability to go straight to the molecular level to store data.”

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This DNA storage system is so small that in theory, you would never have to delete a photo or a file ever again.

The process of coding and then extracting the data-as-DNA uses the exact same automated DNA sequencers that we already use for genetic testing.

“We’re re-purposing the technology, that’s one of the things I find beautiful about this,” Ceze said. “The biotech industry has been making incredible progress in writing and reading DNA. The IT industry obviously has been making incredible progress in building computers. And this project is one example of how these two industries can get together to build, you know, a whole new kind of computer system.”

The researchers liquefy the DNA while encoding and decoding it with your data, but they dehydrate it for long-term storage, turning your photos and files into powder. You could encode every single one of your family photos into DNA and it would be so tiny that you wouldn’t be able to see it with your naked eye, even while holding the powder in your hand.

But if you’re nervous about losing that tiny, tiny grain of powder, not to worry. Artificial DNA can replicate exponentially, just like regular DNA, and it even uses the same enzyme, polymerase. That means researchers like Ceze could quickly and affordably create millions of copies of your data, a far cry from the two or three copies of a file we can save now on our laptops and back-up drives.

The millions of copies would all be encrypted.

You could atomize this and make a literal data cloud, floating around you.

“I love that thought,” Ceze said. “We love talking about this in the lab as well, we can literally have DNA raining all over the world.”

Ceze assured us that even with all this artificial DNA floating around in the universe, it could not merge with real DNA and morph into some kind of freakish DNA monster, even if you accidentally ate it.

“On its own, DNA is literally just an information storage molecule,” Ceze said. “And also, remember that life uses DNA to store information that we use to make proteins and so on. And you have to follow some rules to make valid proteins … so our DNA is going to look like random gibberish to nature.”

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