If countless procedural crime shows have taught us anything, it's that DNA can hold a veritable ton of information just waiting to be accessed by a bunch of people wearing lab coats who like to squint at pipettes. Microsoft wants to take advantage of those capabilities using synthetic DNA, and earlier this week, the company announced that it'd demonstrated the first fully automated DNA data storage system in a proof of concept test.
That test sounds deceptively simple: researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington encoded the word "hello" in synthetic DNA and then converted it back to digital data with a fully automated system. Existing systems can handle important parts of that process, but as Microsoft explained in its announcement, "many of the intermediate steps until now have required manual labor in the research lab." This one doesn't.
Automating these processes is crucial to enabling the use of synthetic DNA as a storage mechanism at scale. Microsoft said that DNA "could fit all the information currently stored in a warehouse-sized datacenter into a space roughly the size of a few board game dice." But no company's going to bother with those information-loaded dice if retrieving the data they hold is a time-consuming process that relies on manual labor.
That's why the company said that "costs need to decrease for both synthesizing DNA — essentially custom building strands with meaningful sequences — and the sequencing process that extracts the stored information" if using synthetic DNA as a storage mechanism is going to work. Because human workers are so expensive (who'd have thunk?) automating these processes will be vital to making them more affordable.
Here's a video about the demo:
And here's how the system demonstrated by Microsoft and UW brings automation to this field:
"The automated DNA data storage system uses software developed by the Microsoft and UW team that converts the ones and zeros of digital data into the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that make up the building blocks of DNA. Then it uses inexpensive, largely off-the-shelf lab equipment to flow the necessary liquids and chemicals into a synthesizer that builds manufactured snippets of DNA and to push them into a storage vessel."
When that information needs to be retrieved, Microsoft said, the system then "adds other chemicals to properly prepare the DNA and uses microfluidic pumps to push the liquids into other parts of the system that 'read' the DNA sequences and convert it back to information that a computer can understand." The researchers are also working on a system meant to automate (and thus reduce the cost of) lab experiments.
Does that mean we're close to loading up our systems with synthetic DNA instead of traditional storage mechanisms? Not really. Most people want their storage to hold more than the word "hello," and while other researchers are working on figuring out how we can enable more complex processes using DNA, it's probably going to take a little while for the technology to reach consumers. Microsoft's demo merely helped that process along.