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

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.

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Now, one of the fledgling industry's startups has unveiled plans for its prototype storage device: a hulking school-bus sized machine that could one day be converting 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. 

Researchers stand in front of a partially completed prototype of a DNA data storage machine in Boston.

CATALOG

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 it’s slow to convert bits into the A, G, C and Ts of the genetic code and laborious to retrieve the data information. The cost 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 custom strands of DNA, Catalog’s process involves involves combining inexpensive, short, pre-made DNA strands into longer bits of DNA that carry information. 

Hyunjun Park, CEO and co-founder of Catalog, compares the process to how metal typeface 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,” says Park. 

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, 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,” admits 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, Catalog plans to allow partners to try out storing files in DNA as a service—although he 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 its approach makes sense. Victor V. Zhirnov at the Semiconductor Research Corporation in Durham, NC, which is tracking developments in DNA storage, says the firm’s “library” approach 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 re-mix their pre-fabricated 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 U.S. intelligence agencies, which in May 2018 said it would hand out millions in contracts towards ways to store data in biological molecules. 

 

This article was written by cool news network.

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