DNA for data storage
Cambridge technology set to replace servers
Cambridge Consultants has been busy innovating in exciting new fields.
The Science Park-based specialist technology firm this week revealed a partnership with Boston-based CATALOG Technologies to encode data in DNA.
CATALOG has created the technology – it means the contents of entire data centres in the palm of your hand. Having proven its capability, CATALOG engaged Cambridge Consultants to support the scaling up of its platform, designing and building a machine that will encode the data at a speed of one terabit (Tb) in 24 hours – equivalent to 64 hours of 1080p HD video. Such leaps in speed will help make it economically attractive to use DNA as the medium for long-term archival of data.
Storing data as DNA will be necessary because by 2025 conventional mediums of storing data – hard drives in data centres, often accessed as cloud services – will no longer be capable of meeting our data storage needs. DNA data storage, which uses synthetic DNA, is space effective, highly sustainable and can fit enormous quantities of data into a tiny footprint. The vast acres of space needed for today’s data centres, and the 24/7 energy required to cool them, could soon be a thing of the past. DNA storage in this fashion requires no entry use and is guaranteed for 1,000 years.
“Making DNA data storage commercially viable requires significant advances in scalability – it’s simply too slow and expensive to be used for business and government use cases as it stands today,” said Hyunjun Park, co-founder and CEO, CATALOG Technologies. “The machine we are developing with Cambridge Consultants will bring DNA data storage out of the research lab and into the real world, for the first time in history.”
The project is being overseen by Richard Hammond, head of synthetic biology at Cambridge Consultants.
“CATALOG contacted us to turn their technology into a substantial system at the fastest rates that have ever been achieved,” Richard says. The partnership, which involves “seven machines to be built over the next three to five years”, will see the pilot being built at the firm’s Science Park base and then shipped to Boston.
“There’s 25 people in the team on our side, and five people at CATALOG,” adds Richard. “CATALOG owns the IP. That’s our normal business model. We work as a business consultancy.”
Richard’s analogy to the way the technology works is to assume the information to be stored is a book, which can be stored by copying it. The traditional approach would be to transcribe the book from start to finish, letter for letter. This is a time-consuming and expensive process. Further, if you want to store a different book, you have to start again from scratch, meaning the cost would be doubled.
The CATALOG approach “can be thought of as building a printing press with typefaces”. The company rearranges the typefaces – pre-made DNA molecules – to match the contents of the book. Because of this, the process is faster and cheaper. The incremental cost for printing different additional books is also significantly lower.
The model is slightly different from the process used by Cambridge Consultants’ spin-out company Evonetix, which also aims to store data as DNA, but is not involved in this project.
“It’s similar,” says Richard. “Evonetix is making DNA to sell to other parties for industrial purposes. They make the DNA from scratch, we take pre-made DNA and do other things with it.”
The developments are both, however, of immense significance.
“It’s a technology whose time has come,” Richard concludes.
Not content with rewriting the rule book on data storage, the firm also launched a one-off camera that can travel through veins.
“It’s a busy time for us,” said PR manager Richard Leyland.