The world is running out of ways to store the mountains of data we produce. Biomemory is creating DNA-based hard drives that could store this information cheaply, sustainably and for centuries.
Society has advanced very far in technologies to store critical data, moving from punched cards and floppy disks in the 20th century to hard drives that can hold up to around 20 terabytes of data. However, this technology is being fast outstripped by our insatiable demand for data.
“With the development of the Internet of Things — an autonomous car generates approximately 3 terabytes per hour — the volume of data generated is expected to double each year,” warned Erfane Arwani, CEO and co-founder of the French DNA storage startup Biomemory.
“The deluge of information is already outpacing the capacity of existing methods for digital media storage which relies on magnetic tapes, hard disk drives or flash memory located in data centers. In addition to having a limited lifetime, these legacy technologies are associated with high financial costs and large environmental footprints.”
The puzzle of archiving data
Data storage centers often use hard drives and magnetic tape to store the bulk of the world’s data archives. In addition to their inability to keep up with surging demand, however, these data centers emit vast amounts of greenhouse gasses annually due to maintenance of the archives.
The increasing use of energy-efficient magnetic tape technology is often suggested as a way to tackle the unsustainability of data storage. Another emerging method is the storage of digital information in hard drives based on DNA, the molecule that codes life itself.
Biomemory: encoding data in DNA
DNA data storage has the potential to address the shortages of data capacity. Unlike magnetic tape, DNA hard drives could store 220,000 terabytes in a single gram of DNA, and the energy needed to maintain the medium is much lower than in data centers.
“Encapsulated DNA has the ability to remain stable for centuries, if not millennia, at room temperature,” said Arwani. He added that all of the digital data generated in 2019 — 45 billion terabytes — could fit into a chunk of DNA the size of a chocolate bar.
To propel the development of DNA hard drives, Biomemory was founded in 2021 by a team-up of academic researchers based in Paris. The startup, which raised $5.2 million in a seed round in December 2022, is developing small airtight capsules that can store dried DNA in data centers. These capsules form part of a data storage system that can read and write DNA molecules to encode and unlock data.
Challenges of developing DNA hard drives
The field of DNA storage is still in its infancy, with the first important demonstration published in 2012 by a group including the U.S. academic George Church. There are numerous technical obstacles to overcome before the technology can go mainstream.
For example, writing DNA is mostly performed using a technique called phosphoramidite chemistry, where the building blocks of DNA are added to a molecule one by one. The technique has been refined over the years, but it still has high costs and is limited in producing long DNA molecules needed for efficient data storage.
“Making DNA data storage practical requires synthesizing DNA at a much higher scale than currently possible for a fraction of the current cost, while minimizing error rates,” said Arwani. “The high cost of current DNA storage in oligonucleotides, above €1000 ($1055) per megabyte, has prevented the real-world application of this technology for massive data storage.”
Enzymatic DNA synthesis has emerged in the last few years as a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to traditional chemical synthesis. It has been championed by companies including DNA Script and Molecular Assembly. However, the method is still slow and requires more research to be able to mass-produce long DNA molecules.
Biomemory uses bacteria to manufacture DNA for hard drives
Biomemory’s solution for achieving the high scale of DNA production required for DNA hard drives is by mass-producing DNA molecules in bacteria. Unlike many current DNA data storage projects, Biomemory’s DNA storage coding process writes DNA sequences that are compatible with living cells. This allows the firm to use bacteria cultures as an alternative to more expensive production methods like PCR. The cells could even be used to edit data stored in the DNA.
Once the DNA is written and then manufactured in cells, Biomemory stores it in capsules and organizes them into a drive system where the information and metadata can be stored and read out via DNA sequencing when needed.
“This technology physically organizes data on long biocompatible and bio-secured double-stranded DNA molecules, offering a durable storage solution with unlimited storage capacity that can be biologically copied at a very low cost,” said Arwani.
The DNA data storage landscape
In the last few years, a lot of work has been done on DNA data storage in the academic sphere. These projects have often been funded in the U.S. by government agencies such as the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Companies pushing the boundaries of DNA data storage include Microsoft, Twist Bioscience, Catalog and DNA Script. However, many continue to use costly synthesis and amplification technologies in their operations.
Biomemory sees itself standing out by taking the purely synthetic DNA constructs developed in the field and making them work in living cells.
“We are leveraging the natural ability of living organisms to manipulate long double-stranded DNA molecules, such as chromosomes or plasmids, to create a scalable and sustainable DNA storage technology,” explained Arwani.
“With only minor optimizations, we already rival chemical and enzymatic synthesis and further improvements enabled by our seed fundraising will unlock data writing at unprecedented speeds and costs.”