Using DNA for digital data storage... and other miracles
Evonetix is a pioneer in the synthetic biology revolution
The way data is stored is set to shift from the cloud to synthetic DNA if Evonetix’s technology is adopted by the data storage sector, says CEO Tim Brears.
Using DNA as a digital data storage medium is just one of the revolutionary applications being developed at the firm’s Chesterford Research Park base, where the lab team includes physicists, electronics engineers, software engineers, mechanical engineers, bioinformaticians, synthetic chemists and biologists.
“It’s all very multi-disciplinary,” says Tim of the gene synthesis firm.
Evonetix’s core technology is making long DNA – the threads – and doing it accurately and at scale. Data storage is just one application.
“Storing digital data is a slightly longer-term option,” says Tim of the concept. “Storing on the cloud – in which huge amounts of data are stored on magnetic tapes – will at some point become problematic as we exceed the capacity for storage, so an alternative could be to store it in DNA.
“There are difficulties to be overcome but we need radically different ways to generate DNA and that’s one of the challenges that’s starting to get a lot of attention.”
So how does it work? The key is to redefine how data is stored in the first instance.
“Currently it’s all in noughts and ones, which, for example, reflect the coding of a sound wave or a pixel in a photo. Everything gets converted to a 0 or a 1.”
DNA data, on the other hand, is expressed in four different bases: A, G, C and T.
“You take the 0s and 1s and a conversion algorithm converts it into As, Gs, Cs and Ts. What’s important is to generate the right sequence of As, Gs, Cs and Ts.
“After conversion you can synthesise it for long-term storage, using the system we are developing.
“The exciting bit is making DNA on silicon chips,” says Tim.
CTO Matthew Hayes shows me the DNA writer and the chips that will store the data when they are mass-produced.
“We grow our DNA at each of these reaction sites,” Matthew says as he shows me the prototype, which permits “exquisite” control at the site of each synthesis. “Our chips will have 10,000 of these reaction sites – and the chip will be the size of the palm of your hand. Others have tried to miniaturise this process but this is the first.”
Evonetix builds the different DNA sequences in parallel – “if you want to make DNA at scale you’ve got to do it in parallel” – and then stitches the strands together. “They’re complementary at the edges so they assemble themselves. We make lots of it, and it makes the long fragments automatically.”
Matthew was at Cambridge Consultants (CCL) for 16 years, on the medical devices team, and Evonetix emerged from there.
“This really is something of even greater interdisciplinary scale,” he says. “It involves new chips, algorithms, bioinformatics, new control technology and chemistry.”
“The firm was incubated at Cambridge Consultants in 2015-16,” confirms Tim, who joined in May last year.
“It was also developed by Hermann Hauser, who was an early investor from his private fund. CCL and Hermann were the founding group.
“The problems are you can’t currently make long DNA and you can’t do it accurately. Also, we can make many variants of a gene, so we could make 100 or 1,000 variants and choose the best one. So it’s work done at scale and with high fidelity. You would need DNA at high fidelity for synthetic biology, which needs large numbers of long-segment DNA made very accurately.”
Synthetic biology is a hugely exciting – and fast-evolving – space to be working in.
“Synthetic biology will become significant as it replaces chemical processes with biological processes that use biological resources – so it will enable us to manage the earth’s resources more efficiently.”
“Take petroleum: instead of making products from oil you could develop processes that use biological feedstocks but you need the right systems – to make the right DNA efficiently is where the opportunity is.”
Possibly Tim is being modest: the wider opportunity is saving the world from ruin – if we can fabricate the products we need using synthetic biology, then resource scarcity is suddenly irrelevant. Renewables, pharmaceuticals and agriculture are all potential applications.
“Ag-bio, yes: if you want to insert genes to improve drought tolerance into plants you’ll want to make the DNA.”
But let’s be clear: Evonetix is just (!) developing the means.
“We’re only making DNA to the correct specification. We’re not going into ag-biotech or data storage.
“But across the whole spectrum of science there’s an increasing need for DNA. The genes which are part of the process need to be optimal.”
So how much would the palm-sized chip cost?
“We can’t be entirely sure yet, but not thousands of pounds. A lot depends on how many you make – we would ship them out to be made. But we will do the testing and small scale manufacturing here. Silicon chip manufacturing – the MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) process is very specialist.”
The highly parallelised DNA writer which is producing test results now is “two or three years” away from going on sale.
“We’ve just raised money,” says Tim, who is also chair of the board of trustees at Quadram Institute Bioscience and has had chief executive roles at Xention and Gendaq. “$12.3million in January, of which some came from Silicon Valley, some from within the UK. Lead investors include DCVC (aka Data Collective) and Draper Esprit. That’s enabling us to develop these technologies.”
Innovate UK also awarded the firm a £1.3 million grant this month.
“As a result of the money we’ve raised we’ve grown from 12 people at the end of the 2017 to 30 currently, and we anticipate that will become 40 in the next 12 months.
“In the first instance, once we get the device running in two or three years, we’ll supply DNA as a service to customers, then we’ll be selling the instrumentation.”
It’s frankly an incredible story. But how easy is it to get all the scientists and engineers from different disciplines to work together?
“They all talk to each other – there’s lots of international people which helps!”
And recruitment? “To be fair it’s gone extremely well. This is what happens when you’re working on something very interesting.”
Interesting is definitely an understatement: what’s happening at Evonetix is startling and game-changing.