Somehow, the burgeoning technology behind DNA digital data storage is already only a few clicks (and many, many dollar bills) away for the common consumer.
Irish synbio start-up Helixworks recently announced that it would be the first commercially available DNA data storage provider and that its services would be made accessible to the public via online shopping powerhouse Amazon.
Helixworks has already sold its services to major corporations like Microsoft, which sought the start-up’s help creating 10m strands of DNA for storage purposes earlier this year.
The announcement came from Helixworks’ CEO Nimesh Chandra during a demonstration at IndeiBio in Cork on July 28th. The company has been featured on Silicon Republic’s list of 13 biotech companies chosen for fast growth. Their revolutionary product, called DNADrive, can store 512KB of binary data in such a way that it will survive for thousands of years.
In the scheme of things, especially in our epoch of big data, this may not seem like a whole lot of storage space. Perhaps more significant is the mark it makes in data storage history; the DNADrive’s status on Amazon indicates the beginning of the era of DNA storage and the market that is bound to surround it.
Why is DNA storage expected to take off in future years? While storing digital information on synthetic DNA is currently an expensive and slow-going process that yields admittedly slow reading and writing rates, there lies tremendous potential in the concept behind the technology.
DNA strands can store practically unlimited amounts of data extremely efficiently, allowing for much smaller storage spaces and reduced energy use. The information, once coded, is also more secure than any other alternative; those purchasing Helixworks’ DNADrives can expect their encoded information to last thousands of years into the future.
Amazingly, DNA digital storage technology doesn’t actually offer the most long-lasting data storage. Another method developed by scientists at the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Center (ORC) involves recording and retrieving data five-dimensionally through femtosecond laser writing. That information has the potential to stay in tact for almost 14 billion years.
The discovery of DNA as a potential vehicle for digital data has led to an array of interesting follow-up studies. Data has been written into synthetic DNA and then written into the DNA of bacteria, for example, making it possible for living beings to carry short digital messages within their own genetic code. While findings like these are astounding, they’re among the many data storage research projects that don’t seem likely to yield any marketable result.
Another such finding just occurred in the Netherlands, where researchers found a way to potentially encode the entire Library of Congress into the space about the size of a dust mite. While the potential to do so is unarguably amazing, the method behind this possibility makes the technology totally unusable by the public; the development revolves around the scientists’ ability to align individualized chlorine molecules onto a copper disk so small it could be fit onto a flu virus. The copper disk has to be protected in hyper-frozen conditions in a vacuum in order for the information arranged on it to remain uncorrupted.
In contrast with these research projects, the DNADrives made by Helixworks will come in the simple form of a custom gold pill which, besides being glamorous, provides radiation and moisture protection for the DNA strand housed within. Helixworks says that its little gold pill can be used by buyers “to store a small photograph, a poem, a love-letter, a eulogy for a loved on, or a bitcoin wallet.”
Chandra also introduced another product at the IndieBio demonstration: a double-stranded DNA synthesizer called GeneSlice. It costs just over $20 per 750 base pairs.