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The DNA data storage machine that’s the size of a school bus

A startup’s concept drawing of a hulking device to archive data in DNA molecules shows the idea has a way to go.
Concept drawing of DNA data storage machine
Concept drawing of DNA data storage machineCourtesy of CATALOG

In a world awash with data, DNA is a hugely compact way to store it. The data on every iPhone, PC, and server rack on the planet could fit in a Jacuzzi’s worth of genetic letters, for example. It’s also incredibly durable: DNA can last for thousands of years so long as it’s kept relatively cool and dry.

Now, one of the fledgling industry’s startups has unveiled plans for its prototype storage device: a hulking school-bus-size machine that could one day convert movies or data archives into invisible pellets of DNA. The device is being built by Catalog Technologies along with UK firm Cambridge Consultants, it was announced today. 

Photo of two researchers standing in front of prototype of DNA data storage machine
Researchers stand in front of a partially completed prototype of a DNA data storage machine in Boston.

Several teams have already shown it’s possible to store GIFs, books, gift cards, and other data in DNA and then retrieve these files.

The problem is that converting bits into the As, Gs, Cs, and Ts of the genetic code is slow, and it’s a laborious process to retrieve the data. The cost of manufacturing customized DNA is also high, running near a million dollars to store a couple of high-resolution DVDs.

Catalog claims its system is less costly. Instead of synthesizing unique strands of DNA, the process involves involves combining inexpensive, short, premade DNA strands into longer bits of DNA that carry information. 

Hyunjun Park, CEO and cofounder of Catalog, compares the process to the way metal letters are combined into words on an old-fashioned printing press.

The companies provided glimpses of their machine to MIT Technology Review, including a rendering (shown above) of what the walk-in lab will look like and a photograph of engineers outfitting a prototype.

According to Park, a single prototype machine will be completed early next year and will be able to write one terabit of data into DNA per day. That’s about as much data as fits on a laptop. “Still not enough, but it is larger than what has ever been done,” he says. 

An actual commercial system—a single machine or a group of them able to store a petabit of data per day—won’t be ready until 2021, Park says.

And let’s face it, this thing is huge. It’s no flash drive. The rendering shows a door and room enough inside for a couple of technicians. Inside there will need to be a hundred bags or bottles of ready-made DNA, and then an automated laboratory to mix the strands together and perform billions of reactions. You’ll also have to squeeze in a DNA sequencing machine—maybe a couple of them—to retrieve the data. The rendering recalls ENIAC, the early computer built in the 1940s at the University of Pennsylvania, which glowed with over 18,000 vacuum tubes and filled a large room. 

“This is the first ever one. It can shrink, but we haven’t taken that challenge on the nose yet,” says Richard Hammond, head of synthetic biology at Cambridge Consultants, which takes on custom engineering projects.

Catalog, which raised $9 million in venture funds this summer, will not be selling the machines at first. Instead, when the single prototype device is finished, the company plans to allow partners to try out storing files in DNA as a service—although Park doesn’t say if any have signed up already. 

Because it takes so long to turn bits into DNA and to get the information back out, don’t expect DNA data storage on your phone. Rather, the technique could replace long-term archival storage on magnetic tapes.

Catalog has been secretive about its approach, leading other scientists to say they can’t judge whether it makes sense. Victor V. Zhirnov at the Semiconductor Research Corporation in Durham, North Carolina, which is tracking developments in DNA storage, says the firm’s “library” idea is economically viable, in theory.

“By doing this they don’t need to synthesize new DNA for every new piece of information to store, instead they just have to remix their prefabricated DNA,” he adds.

Catalog isn’t the only firm hoping to scale up DNA storage. Luis Ceze, at the University of Washington, is collaborating with Microsoft, which also has plans for a commercial DNA data storage system and also wants to automate the process.

Both groups are in the running for funds from IARPA, the research organization of US intelligence agencies, which in May 2018 said it would hand out millions in contracts toward ways to store data in biological molecules. 


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