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Synthetic DNA Studied for Mass Data Storage

DNA illustration

(Nogas1974, Wikimedia Commons)

16 Jan. 2020. An industry-academic consortium received a U.S. government contract to develop coded synthetic polymer chemicals like DNA for reliably storing massive amounts of data. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa, awarded the four-year contract of up to $23 million to the Molecular Encoding Consortium, that includes the company DNA Script in Paris and labs at Harvard University and the Broad Institute, a genomics research center affiliated with Harvard and MIT.

Iarpa is seeking a stable, deployable technology for storing massive amounts of data expected from advances in informatics, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, and autonomous vehicles. These rapid and parallel advances are stretching current data storage facilities, such as data centers, to their limits, requiring ever-larger physical plants, higher power consumption, and much higher costs. Building more of these large and expensive facilities is becoming increasingly unfeasible and not sustainable.

Iarpa, an office under the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, established its molecular information storage program to find out if synthetic chemicals such as sequence-controlled polymers can solve this growing problem. Polymers are common chains of molecules called monomers found throughout nature, but those monomer chains can also, under some conditions, be purposefully arranged to create synthetic polymers not found in nature. With sequence-controlled polymers, the order of these monomer chains can be controlled and arranged to represent predetermined codes for data storage.

The Molecular Encoding Consortium aims to explore if a new type of DNA synthesis process using enzymes, when combined with high-throughput sequencing, can meet Iarpa’s needs. DNA Script designs synthetic nucleic acids including DNA, which the company says uses efficient enzymes to produce synthetic nucleic acids faster, more reliably, and with fewer errors. DNA Script produces synthetic DNA and other nucleic acids for drug discovery, biofuels, biomaterials, engineered food crops, and data storage.

Robert Nicol, director of technology development at the Broad Institute and principal investigator on the project says in a DNA Script statement, “This project [is] at the intersection of molecular biology, physics, chemistry, information theory, and electrical engineering,” and adds, “The objectives set out by IARPA for this four-year program are ambitious and will require scientific innovations, as well as robust and scalable technologies.”

The consortium includes the lab of physicist and engineering professor Donhee Ham at Harvard University, that studies nanoscale tools for biology, including chip devices interacting with biological processes, and will provide that expertise for the project. The team also plans to add genetics technology company Illumina Inc. to the project. The company is offering its sequencing by synthesis technology that the company says makes possible base-by-base sequencing for accurate analysis.

Thomas Ybert, CEO of DNA Script notes that the project “will require us to push current technological limits to bring to life our cutting-edge technology, while also delivering an operational solution to one of the most important challenges of our time.”

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