DNA Data Storage Alliance Launches With Illumina, Microsoft, Twist Bioscience, Western Digital

December 1, 2020

By Bio-IT World Staff 

December 1, 2020 | Twist Bioscience Corporation, Illumina, and Western Digital announced an alliance last month with Microsoft to advance the field of DNA data storage. These founding companies and member organizations will work together to create a comprehensive industry roadmap that will help the industry achieve interoperability between solutions and help establish the foundations for a  cost-effective commercial archival storage ecosystem for the explosive growth of digital data. 

“Current storage technologies all have limited lifetimes, requiring constant maintenance and/or replacement, and this drives up the total cost of ownership,” explained Emily Leproust, CEO and co-founder of Twist Bioscience, in an email exchange with Bio-IT World. “DNA is an incredible molecule that, by its very nature, provides ultra-high-density storage for thousands of years. Theoretically, 20 grams of DNA would be enough to store all of the world's digital data. It is also very stable, relatively cheap to synthesize and copy, and doesn't take up much physical space. In addition, the format of DNA is universal, which eliminates the evolution of technology advancements that make typical storage media obsolete (e.g. 8 track tapes, floppy discs, etc.).”

Microsoft has already demonstrated a fully automated end-to-end system capable of storing and retrieving data from DNA in collaboration with the University of Washington. “We have separately stored 1GB of data in DNA synthesized by Twist and recovered data from it,” added Karin Strauss, senior principal research manager at Microsoft in the Alliance announcement. Synthetic DNA is preferable because it is easier to handle and store. It can be created, and total cost of ownership is very low compared to other storage media, Leproust explained.

“A key component of a DNA data storage system is its ability to read back the digital information when needed,” said Alex Aravanis, chief technology officer at Illumina in the same statement. “We believe Illumina’s innovative sequencing technology will be critical in enabling this market at commercial scale and look forward to collaborating with other leaders in their respective fields to make this a viable, long-term solution for archival storage.”

Finally, Western Digital is joining the effort because they’ve identified an unmet need for a new long-term archival storage medium that keeps up with the rate of digital data growth. The demand for cold storage—data that are read seldom or never—is growing quickly, and the Alliance members believe that DNA represents a viable pathway to store this important data in a reasonable way. 

Steffen Hellmold, vice president corporate strategic initiatives, Western Digital, said: “We estimate that almost half of the data storage solutions shipped in 2030 will be used to archive data as the overall temperature of data is cooling down. We are committed to providing a full portfolio of storage solutions addressing the demand for hot, warm and cold storage.” 

An Industry Path Forward 

While many different groups are pursuing DNA data storage on their own, the Alliance members believe it is important to proceed together. To make DNA data storage technology a reality, three major physical components are required: DNA writing, storage and reading. All three components have been demonstrated by multiple groups using different research techniques and method, Leproust said. “We believe the industry would benefit from moving forward together in a universally agreed way, growing the market.”  

“If you think about storage mediums, there have been those that faded fast (Blueray, 8 track tapes), and those that have lasted—Flash memory for example,” she continued. “The way they are developed can be ‘open’ or ‘closed’—those that are open, like Flash, are still around. Those that were closed (meaning only one company develops them), do not last.” 

The Alliance wants the technologies they develop to last. And they aren’t the only ones. While Twist Bioscience, Illumina, Western Digital and Microsoft are joining the Alliance as founding members, many other organizations have joined the alliance as members including Ansa Biotechnologies; CATALOG; The Claude Nobs Foundation (Montreux Jazz Digital Project); DNA Script; EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), Cultural Heritage & Innovation Center (Montreux Jazz Digital Project); ETH Zurich, The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland; imec; Iridia; Molecular Assemblies; and Molecular Information Systems Lab at the University of Washington. 

The DNA Data Storage Alliance plans to develop a roadmap DNA storage, share use cases in various markets and industries, and promote and educate the larger storage community to promote adoption of this future solution. 

“The real benefit of coming together as a group is that we are preparing the market for the introduction of this new storage medium,” Leproust contended. “The IT professionals will be ready for it when available. Coming together, we are able to create awareness and share the benefits of DNA for digital data storage.”