Fascinating new technology promises to revolutionize archiving, says Jason Walsh
It’s easy to be cynical about the tech industry. In an industry where every minor upgrade is routinely touted as a “disruptive” innovation, news of this or that “revolution” can spark little more than eye roll.
Sometimes, however, real innovation happens, and it can come as a surprise.
At the end of May, researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), one of the two main research funding organizations in the country, announced the launch of MoleculArXiv1, an exploratory project aimed at developing a durable, low-power synthetic DNA and polymer-based data storage technology.
Yes, you read that right: storage technology based on synthetic DNA.
It’s not just speculative research either. Last November, the National Archives of France took receipt of two historical texts encoded on synthetic DNA, in what he described as a “world first” that could have a major impact on archival storage. As befits France, the texts were fittingly historic: the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Woman of 1791. Encoded on DNA and stored in metal capsules as part of the DNA Drive project, a new technology developed by French researchers Stéphane Lemaire and Pierre Crozet.
Twenty million euros are to be invested in MoleculArXiv1 in the coming years, in the hope of transforming the landscape of storage and archiving. The project’s ten-year goal is to open this emerging storage technology to general use, particularly to handle rarely used ‘cold’ data, such as legal and email records. This largely dormant hardware currently accounts for sixty to eighty percent of all data, and a move to DNA storage would, among other things, massively reduce the carbon footprint of data centers.
A parallel project using a different technique is underway in the United States with the company Molecular Information Storage, supported by Microsoft, and has received funding of 50 million dollars (47 million euros).
Addressing the CNRS logMoleculArXiv1 project coordinator Marc Antonini said the main characteristic of DNA is its storage capacity and durability.
“The proof: the DNA of a million-year-old mammoth can be sequenced – that is, read – today. Synthetic DNA, properly stored, can be retrieved thousands of years later. It just needs to be preserved from oxygen, water and light. In the context of data storage, we speak of chemically synthesized DNA for which scientists construct sequences that do not include a gene. It is not about the biology of the living, but about chemical synthesis. For storage, the DNA is inserted into a mini metal capsule – under development by the French company Imagene. These mini capsules can store millions of DNA strands (and therefore data) because they are very compact. In theory, one of these capsules could contain the equivalent of a data center – so we can imagine the energy savings, but also the space savings on the territory,” he said.
For now, even if the technology is functional, there is still a long way to go. The process will have to be much cheaper and faster if it is to be generalized. It currently takes 100 seconds to save 1 bit of data on synthetic DNA, unlike a fraction of a second on an SSD or spinning disk. The immediate goal of the project is to increase write speeds by a hundredfold over the next three to five years and further reduce the size of the technology to reduce running costs.
Will your next smartphone or laptop replace its SSD with a DNA capsule? Probably not, but the development is intriguing. As anyone who has ever had to archive anything from simple personal backups to work data to large-scale libraries will know that unlike mammoth DNA, much of our seemingly permanent media is anything but. .