Blood Test

‘Innovation is in our DNA’ takes a literal turn

A fascinating new technology promises to revolutionise archiving, says Jason Walsh
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Image: cottonbro via Pexels

15 June 2022

It is easy to be cynical about the tech sector. In an industry in which every minor upgrade is routinely pitched as ‘disruptive’ innovation, news of this or that ‘revolution’ can prompt little more than rolling of eyes.

Sometimes, though, real innovation does occur, and it can be quite the surprise.

At the end of May, researchers at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), one of the country’s two major research funding agencies, announced the launch of MoleculArXiv1, an exploratory project to develop sustainable and low-energy synthetic DNA and polymer-based data storage technology.

 

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Yes, you read that right: storage technology based on synthetic DNA.

It’s not just speculative research, either. Last November, France’s National Archive took receipt of two historical texts encoded on synthetic DNA, in what it described  as a “world first” that could have a major impact on archival storage. Fittingly for France, the texts were suitably historic: the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Encoded on DNA and stored in metal capsules under the DNA Drive project, a novel technology developed by French researchers Stéphane Lemaire and Pierre Crozet.

Twenty-million euro is to be poured into MoleculArXiv1 in the coming years, hoping to transform the storage and archival landscape. The project’s ten-year target is to open up this emerging storage technology to mainstream usage, particularly to process ‘cold’, rarely-used data such as legal and e-mail archives. This largely dormant material currently makes up sixty to eighty percent of all data, and a move to DNA storage would, among other things, massively reduce data centres’ carbon footprint. 

A parallel project using a different technique is underway in the United States with the Molecular Information Storage venture, which is backed by Microsoft, and received funding to the tune of $50 million (€47 million).

Speaking to the CNRS’s journal, the MoleculArXiv1 project coordinator Marc Antonini said the key characteristic of DNA is its storage capacity and durability. 

“The proof: the DNA of a million-year-old mammoth can be sequenced – that is, read – today. Synthetic DNA, properly stored, can be recovered thousands of years later. It just needs to be preserved from oxygen, water and light. In the context of data storage, we are talking about chemically synthesised DNA for which scientists are building sequences that do not include a gene. We are not dealing with the biology of the living, but with chemical synthesis. For conservation, the DNA is inserted into a mini metallic capsule – currently being developed by the French company Imagene. These mini capsules can store millions of strands of DNA (and therefore data) because it is very compact. In theory, one of these capsules could contain the equivalent of a data centre – we can therefore imagine the energy savings, but also the space savings on the territory,” he said.

For now, though the technology is functional, there is still a long road ahead. The process will need to be a lot cheaper and quicker if it is to be put to general use. It currently takes 100 seconds to save 1 bit of data onto synthetic DNA, in contrast to a fraction of a second on an SSD or spinning disk. The project’s immediate aim is to accelerate write speed one hundred-fold in the coming three to five years, and to further reduce the size of the technology, to keep running costs down.

Will your next smartphone or laptop replace its SSD with a DNA capsule? Probably not, but the development is intriguing. As anyone who has ever had to archive anything, from simple personal backups through business data to full scale libraries, will know that unlike mammoth DNA, much of our apparently permanent media is anything but. 

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