DNA, at its most basic level, is a biological storage device, an organic way of holding and preserving genetic data. A new collaboration between Twist Bioscience and academic institutions like the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) has seen this basic property of DNA leveraged to store digital data in a biological format. We talked to Emily LeProust, Twist's CEO and co-founder, about the new innovations.
Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): How did Twist first get involved in DNA data storage?
Emily Leproust (EL): We've been involved in involved in DNA digital data storage for quite some time, with an original paper published together with Nick Goldman in 2013. In 2016, Twist Bioscience began supplying DNA to Microsoft and the University of Washington, working with the two groups to develop DNA as a data storage medium. We continue to work to reduce the cost of synthesizing DNA to make it a commercially viable application.
RM: How does the process of DNA data storage work in practice?
EL: Just as digital data is made up of 0s and 1s, DNA is made of 4 letters, A, C, T and G. The digital code of 0s and 1s is encoded into As, Cs, Gs and Ts. For example, 00 becomes A, 01 becomes G, 10 becomes C and 11 becomes T. That sequence of DNA is then synthesized, storing the digital data in DNA. When the time comes to retrieve the data, the DNA is sequenced and then decoding takes place, converting A back to 00, G to 01, C to 10 and T to 11. The file is exactly as it started.
The process of DNA data storage is outlined in this video. Credit: Twist Bioscience via Youtube
RM: In the future would this technology allow for data files to be contained on edited sections of a human genome?
EL: No. An important point to make is that the DNA we are using to store digital data does not come from the body, and we would not use human DNA to store data.
RM: What advantages are there to storing data on DNA instead of silicon semiconductors?
EL: It has several important features that make it a great storage medium: Density, permanence, random access, extremely low energy use, universal read technology, redundancy and encryption.
RM: What do you see as being the future of this technology in 10 or 15 years’ time?
EL: As we are able to bring the cost of DNA synthesis down, DNA digital data storage becomes a commercially viable option to store long-term data. Given the benefits, we believe DNA will have an important place in the storage market.