Picture credit: NHGRI- https://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/
Last fall, IAI spent a term at the Harvard Graduate Extension School studying bioinformatics which is a cross-disciplinary area uniting computational biology and large scale data analysis. The revolution in applying computational power to biology accelerated with the Human Genome Project when the cost of sequencing the human genome was $1 billion but today, it costs just over a thousand dollars to sequence an entire genome, which is approximately three billion letters, and the price will continue to drop as the technology advances. The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) supports the databases that contain trillions of sequences. A genome consists of all of the DNA contained in a cell’s nucleus. DNA is composed of four chemical building blocks or “bases” (for simplicity, abbreviated G, A, T, and C), with the biological information encoded within DNA determined by the order of those bases. Diploid organisms, like humans and all other mammals, contain duplicate copies of almost all of their DNA (i.e., pairs of chromosomes; with one chromosome of each pair inherited from each parent).
Andy Extance at Nature chronicled how this DNA storage race spring from cocktail napkins in 2011 to monthly breakthroughs this past summer. At the European Bioinformation Institute, a brainstorming session at a Hamburg Germany conference in February 2011 focused on how to afford to store the reams of genome sequences and other data the world was throwing at these engineers. The lead researcher and “his EBI colleague Ewan Birney took the idea back to their labs, and two years later announced that they had successfully used DNA to encode five files, including Shakespeare’s sonnets and a snippet of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech1. By then, biologist George Church and his team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had unveiled an independent demonstration of DNA encoding2. But at 739 kilobytes (kB), the EBI files comprised the largest DNA archive ever produced — until July 2016, when researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington claimed a leap to 200 megabytes (MB).” The MIT Technology Review applauded the breakthrough here.
Microsoft is touting its capabilities in this area -but its program is very dependent upon a University of Washington computer science lab and some early stage partners. Pre-IPO firm Twist Bioscience lays out the case for finding an alternative to the magnetic data storage dilemma (and it is a Microsoft partner):
Most of the world’s data is stored using media that won’t last for more than several decades, even in the optimal conditions of freezing temperatures and total darkness . One study showed that data on a hard drive running for four years shows an attrition rate of 22%—hardly stellar performance. Meanwhile, the amount of digital data in the world is doubling every two years, and our ability to store all that data is not keeping pace. According to a recent study by EMC, by 2020 we will only be able to store 15% of our digital data, whereas in 2013 we could store 33%.
The ability to encode digital information in strands of DNA is a major advancement in archival technology because DNA molecules are not susceptible to the most dire limitations of traditional digital storage media: limited lifespan, permanent/standard format and low data density. There is enormous enthusiasm among venture capital funds about DNA storage and the money is flowing into emerging memory technologies, DNA storage and computing, hardware accelerators for machine learning, and system software for new architectures.
Picture credit: MSFT / University of Washington
IDC predicts that the worldwide total of stored digital data will hit 16 trillion gigabytes next year, most of it housed in huge data centers. The University of Washington’s Strauss estimates that a shoebox worth of DNA could hold the equivalent of roughly 100 giant data centers.
Well, for MSFT, it’s all about the possibilities – ah, yes, the ultimate operating system: can’t disconnect, price is your life, they get paid for the feeds, and you cannot refuse automatic system “upgrades”, even if they are as bad as Windows 10 ! IAI worries that these DNA Storage advances will not be equally shared among the population and that there could be people like Ray Kurzweil who implant new memories into their brain as their bodies survive as vessels on pig-grown replacement parts. For me, I believe in the sanctity of the soul…
Picture Credit: TodayIAmBlessed.com