Researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington say they have reached what they call “an early but important milestone in DNA storage by storing a record 200 megabytes of data on the molecular strands.”

According to Microsoft, the impressive part is not just how much data they were able to encode onto synthetic DNA and then decode – it’s also the space they were able to store it in.

Once encoded, the data occupied a spot in a test tube “much smaller than the tip of a pencil,” said Douglas Carmean, the partner architect at Microsoft overseeing the project.

“It’s one of those serendipitous partnerships where a strong understanding of processors and computation married with molecular biology experts has the potential of producing major breakthroughs,” he added.

“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, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering and the university’s principal researcher on the project.

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“This is one important example of the potential of borrowing from nature to build better computer systems,” he added.

According to Microsoft, storing digital data on DNA follows this sequence:

First the data is translated from 1s and 0s into the “letters” of the four nucleotide bases of a DNA strand — (A)denine, (C)ytosine, (G)uanine and (T)hymine.

Then they have vendor Twist Bioscience “translate those letters, which are still in electronic form, into the molecules themselves, and send them back.”