DNA data
Digital data could be encoded onto DNA and preserved for thousands of years.Getty Images

Microsoft is conducting research to find out whether synthetic DNA can be used as a data storage medium. The company has purchased 10 million lab-made DNA molecules from biotechnology start-up Twist Bioscience, which it will use to encode digital data.

According to Twist Bioscience, DNA is particularly promising as a storage medium, due to the fact that it has a shelf life of several thousand years – considerably longer than that of traditional storage technology. It also has an incredibly high data density, with Twist estimating that a single gram of DNA is enough to store up to one trillion gigabytes of data.

Microsoft has purchased synthetic DNA molecules, called oligonucleotides, from Twist Bioscience following trials between the companies that explored the potential of DNA as a storage medium. During initial tests, Microsoft claimed it was able to recover 100 percent of digital data encoded on synthetic DNA.

Doug Carmean, a Microsoft partner architect within the company's Technology and Research organisation, said that while the experiments weren't likely to turn out anything commercially viable any time soon, early tests suggested that DNA could "substantially increase the density and durability of data storage."

Unmatched scale

Research into new storage technologies continues to pick up pace as our output of digital data grows drastically. In February, scientists from the University of Southampton in the UK claimed they had created a new 3D optical data storage method that could preserve data on glass for millions of years.

Microsoft and Twist aren't the only companies tapping the potential of DNA for storage means. In 2015, researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich announced they had developed a method for preserving data on DNA encased in glass and stored in sub-zero temperatures.

Emily Leproust - PhD and CEO of Twist Bioscience - said: "Today, the vast majority of digital data is stored on media that has a finite shelf life and periodically needs to be re-encoded. DNA is a promising storage media, as it has a known shelf life of several thousand years, offers a permanent storage format and can be read for continuously decreasing costs.

"Our silicon-based DNA synthesis platform offers unmatched scale and product quality that vastly accelerates the ability to write DNA at a cost enabling data storage."