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DNA Meets Big Data Analytics
July 27, 2016 News

In a recent breakthrough, researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington were able to store 200 megabytes of data on to a synthetic strand of Deoxyribonuecleic Acid, or DNA for short. The space it occupied? Smaller than a pencil tip! With the expected tsunami of information that will hit us within the next 4 to 5 years, this is a positive milestone in space management.

Data ranging from IoT, to hospitals, and industrial giants will need storage capacity easily exceeding the 50’s of trillions of gigabytes by 2020 according to Cisco’s projection last year.

Although, the encoding and decoding still have a few bugs to iron out, the initial signs look very promising, especially where big data analytics is concerned.

“DNA is an amazing information storage molecule that encodes data about how a living system works. We’re repurposing that capacity to store digital data – pictures, videos, documents,” said Luis Henrique Ceze, an associate professor of computer science and engineering and UW’s principal researcher on the project.

Unlike silicon-based storage, DNA’s attributes such as being dense, robust and flexible too, are ideal attributes for data storage. It is also unscathed by power outages or surges.

Microsoft bought ten million strands of DNA from Twist Bioscience to research on the use of its genetic storage capabilities. Data density of DNA are magnitudes higher than conventional storage systems. 1 gram of DNA represents almost 1 billion terabytes of data.

Emily M. Leproust, Ph.D., CEO of Twist Bioscience, says the vast majority of digital data stored on media has a finite shelf life. It “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”, she adds.

The research at Microsoft, led by Karin Strauss, is creating a vacuum in computer science and technology that needs to be filled, forcing the two fields to move at a faster pace and creating a cross-disciplinary environment where scientists and engineers can learn from natures own genetic code.

The major issue with DNA storage is in reading and writing. Twists custom made machine produces custom made strings of DNA and is able to write on it. Something even they are new to. Custom DNA sequencing costs approximately 10 cents per base. Over the years, costs in manufacturing have decreased and what used to cost approximately $ 3 billion to achieve in the 90’s, now costs a mere $1,000 to get done.

Though the technology is in existence, the actual fruition of its capabilities are not projected in the near future. For one thing, costs to shift data from current storage will be hefty. Also as mentioned earlier, read/write options are limited at best. Therefore, companies dealing with DNA are not in demand. Though big companies like Microsoft are able to create the waves to make the changes a reality, when will it trickle down to mainstream everyday users remains a question.