Microsoft ($MSFT) has ordered 10 million strands of synthetic DNA from Twist Bioscience. The deal gives Microsoft the material to run research into the storage of digital data on DNA, a method that is tipped to enable the long-term housing of information in a relatively small amount of space.
As it stands, the approach is still experimental, with costs and questions about the error rate both holding back its entry into the mainstream. But, after decades in which interest in the idea failed to translate into significant advances, the method is gaining momentum, with Microsoft’s entry into the sector coming four years after George Church encoded a book in DNA. Twist, which is building out an industrial-scale DNA production and sales operation, is positioned to support the advance of the idea.
Microsoft is leaning on the San Francisco-based company for its research program. “They give us the DNA sequence, we make the DNA from scratch,” Twist CEO Emily Leproust told IEEE Spectrum. Microsoft committed to the purchase of 10 million strands after a pilot project confirmed the ability of the DNA to reliably encode and recover data. The next step is to put the DNA through rigorous testing, such as by simulating the passing of millennia to see if the data are still accessible. Current storage methods have a finite lifespan.
For Twist, an Illumina ($ILMN)-backed synthetic DNA specialist that has pulled in more than $130 million in VC funding, the deal gives it another potential market in which to sell products, although it is likely to remain a research-scale opportunity for the mid-term. Microsoft thinks commercial DNA storage is still years away, in part because it is uneconomical today. “We have to lower the cost by about 10,000 times from where it is today,” Leproust said. In keeping with the ambitious activity of Twist to date, Leproust doesn’t think this is an unrealistic proposition.
The rewards for reaching the point at which commercial data storage on DNA could be significant for Twist and the broader technology sector. With the rate at which data are produced spiraling, there is a need for compact, reliable, long-term storage systems. DNA could meet this need. “You could fit all the knowledge in the whole world inside the trunk of your car,” Leproust told TechCrunch.