A very 21st century problem, we are on the cusp of an information overload. By 2013, humans had produced an estimated 4.4 zettabytes of data and by 2025, that's set to skyrocket to 160 zettabytes each year! To put that into perspective, if Netflix's entire catalogue was streamed more than 3000 times, that would use 1 exabyte of data. A single zettabyte is 1000 exabytes. Our current infrastructure can only handle a small fraction of the oncoming data deluge, and by 2040 it is expected our total data will have consumed all of the world's microchip-grade silicon.
With today's technology, we store most digital archives - ranging from music to satellite images and research files - on magnetic tape. This tape, although cheap, takes up a lot of space and needs replacing every 10 years. According to Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist at the Semiconductor Research Corporation, "Today’s technology is already close to the physical limits of scaling, DNA has an information-storage density several orders of magnitude higher than any other known storage technology."
Just how dense is that exactly? If you formatted every movie ever made into DNA, it would be smaller than the size of a sugar cube and last 10,000 years.
The idea of replacing silicon-chip or magnetic-tape with DNA isn't new, successfully storing Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken", as well as Deep Purples "Smoke on the Water" and a gif of a galloping horse. So if we have successfully use DNA to store data, where is the issue? Cost. DNA-synthesis companies exist, Twist Bioscience for example, charge between 7 and 9 cents per base, meaning a single minute of high quality stereo sound would cost just under $100,000.
With recent molecular data storage breakthroughs, Microsoft plans to have an operational prototype working inside one of its data centres by 2020. Doug Carmean, a partner architect at Microsoft research, said that this storage solution will be offered to "boutique" customers, needing in the gigabyte and petabyte range. Microsoft's long-term goal though, is a much more ambitious and exciting prospect. "We're going after totally replacing tape drives as an archival storage," says Doug Carmean.
With plenty to be excited about in data storage, one thing for certain is this is a modern day problem and we're searching for a 3.8 billion year old solution.