Georgia Tech secures grant to smash an Exabyte of data into a DNA sugarcube

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

The world is producing vast quantities of information and today’s storage technologies are increasingly struggling to keep up.

 

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Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have announced they’re looking into ways to speed up DNA storage as part of a $25m Scalable Molecular Archival Software and Hardware (SMASH) project. And in case you’re wondering what that really means then basically they’re looking into new ways to accelerate the development of DNA storage – that’s storing computer information in DNA which I’ve talked at length about previously and which ultimately means we could store all the world’s information in a device the size of a shoe box, or in a device on our desks, and shrink a Google sized hyperscale datacenter into a device the size of a standard office desk – impressive!

 

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“Is so compact that a practical DNA archive could store an exabyte of data, equivalent to a million terabyte hard drives, in a volume about the size of a sugar cube,” said GTRI senior research scientist Nicholas Guise. And to say that in the world of storage that’d be a game changer is a massive under statement.

“Put another way, what would take acres in a data farm today could be kept in a device the size of the tabletop,” added team mate Alexa Harter. Which, coincidentally, is why Microsoft who’ve been pioneering the development of DNA storage devices and want to release the first DNA storage cloud platform soon, are so interested in the tech.

 

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At the moment the team want to encode and decode terabytes of data in a day at costs and rates more than 100 times better than current technologies, and even though this is still slow by current hard drive and flash drive standards it’d be a big leap for the tecnology.

“Scientists have been able to read DNA from animals that died centuries ago, so the data lasts essentially forever under the right conditions which makes it ideal for information archiving,” said Guise.

The grant was awarded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), and Georgia Tech’s Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology will provide fabrication facilities, Twist Bioscience will engineer a DNA synthesis platform on silicon that “writes” the DNA strands which code the stored data, Roswell Biotechnologies will provide molecular electronic DNA reader chips which are under development, and finally the University of Washington, collaborating with Microsoft, will provide system architecture, data analysis and coding expertise.

 

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GTRI envisages a hybrid chip with DNA grown above standard CMOS layers containing the electronics. Current technology uses modified inkjet printing to produce DNA strands but the SMASH project plans to grow the necessary DNA biopolymer more rapidly and in larger quantities by using what they call “parallelised synthesis” on these hybrid chips.

Data will then be read from DNA strands on those chips using a molecular electronic sensor array chip, on which single molecules are drawn through nanoscale current meters that measure the electrical signatures of each letter, C, G, A and T, in the nucleotide sequence, in order to decode the information and make it readable.

“We’ll be working with commercial foundries, so when we get the processing right, it should be much easier to transition the technology over to them. Connecting to the existing technology infrastructure is a critical part of this project, but we’ll have to custom-make most of the components in the first stage,” said Guise, before discussing some of the difficulties.

 

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“The basic synthesis [of DNA] is proven at a scale of hundreds of microns. We want to shrink that by a factor of 100, which leads us to worry about such issues as crosstalk between different DNA strands in adjacent locations on the chips,” he added, “We don’t see any killers ahead for this technology, but there’s a lot of emerging technology involved and doing this commercially will require many orders of magnitude improvement. Magnetic tape for archival storage has been improving steadily for 60 years, and this investment from IARPA will power the advancements needed to make DNA storage competitive with that.”

So, while it might take us a while to get there, when we do eventually manage to store an exabyte of data in a sugar cube-sized chip, it’ll make today’s storage systems look like something out of the Ark.

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