Tech Companies Mull Storing Data in DNA

As conventional storage technologies struggle to keep up with big data, interest grows in a biological alternative

4 min read
Tech Companies Mull Storing Data in DNA
Test Tube Bits: Biology’s data-storage method, DNA, might work for our data, too.
Photo: Getty Images

It was the looming sense of crisis that brought them together. In late April, technologists from IBM, Intel, and Microsoft joined an intimate gathering of computer scientists and geneticists to discuss the big problem with big data: Our data storage requirements are rapidly exceeding the capacity of today’s best storage technologies: magnetic tape, disk drives, and flash memory.

The closed-door meeting in Arlington, Va., was convened to explore the potential of a new storage technology that is actually as old as life itself. The experts came together to weigh the merits of DNA data storage, which makes use of the marvelously compact and durable DNA molecules that encode genetic information inside living things. By converting digital files into biological material, warehouse-size storage facilities could theoretically be replaced by diminutive test tubes.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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