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Bull Session

DNA as Data Storage

May 5, 2016          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life podcast we discuss how bio-inspired technology is beginning to intersect with information technology in big ways. With the exponential increase of digital data, we face an ongoing problem of information storage. Today most digital information is stored on media that will expire relatively quickly, lasting a few decades at most. Because of this, we require new methods for long-term data storage, and biotech might just have the answer. DNA could be the storage media of the future: It can last thousands, even potentially tens of thousands of years. And the tech industry has taken notice. For instance, last month Microsoft agreed to purchase millions of strands of synthetic DNA, from San Francisco based Twist Bioscience to encode digital data. Of course we may be years away from a commercial DNA storage product, but the potential for a revolutionary, even disaster proof media is there.

Resources

Twist Biosciences
DNA Storage at Microsoft Resarch
Microsoft experiments with DNA storage: 1,000,000,000 TB in a gram

Jon:
Welcome to episode 154 The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hidey ho, Jon.

Jon:
Hidey ho, Dirk. For our podcast today, we’re going to discuss the intersection of biology and information technology, specific around using DNA to encode data for storage purposes, for long term storage. This is an idea that has been around for a while. The first research papers published on it about 4 years ago and …

Dirk:
4 years ago is a while. Shows you how time passes quickly nowadays, huh?

Jon:
I’m sure the idea predates some of the techniques that were published at the time. I’m thinking of a paper by George Church and his collaborators that more or less proved that you could do this, that you could take digital data and encode it in DNA strands and retrieve that data, which is sort of the critical part. Before we get into that and some of the news that came out last week, I wanted to break down the problem itself, which is this increase in information and data which we seem to be generating quite a bit of now that we’re online and living our digital lives.

I think it’s fascinating in particular because we don’t think about the storage media that we’re committing our information to very much. In fact, we think about not at all. At the beginning, you and I, maybe, remember the floppy disk which is now nothing more than an icon to the millennials, but that was a physical thing that you slotted into the computer and you were thrilled if you could store a few K of material on there. Of course, storage has grown exponentially since then and now we have gigabytes of storage that can fit on our the key fob or whatever or what have you.

Even more important, there’s information, cultural treasures, that reside all over the place, that are just getting lost on a daily basis because we can’t, frankly, store them. There’s tons of information at the national archives that are in things like recordings on these audio tubes. These old forms of recording that are falling apart, that are decaying as fast as the archives can get these transfers done.

I have a box of family films all on the Super 8 that were retrieved from attics. My parents have moved out of their house and my wife’s mom moved out of her house and so now we have boxes of Super 8, and all this needs to get transferred into another storage media which will once again decay over a certain amount of time like ….

Dirk:
That transfer’s going to be expensive, buddy.

Jon:
Oh, sure! It’s just this deluge of information, and you can think about it. Every family that had those family films, every piece of cultural material, whether it was worth saving or not and sitting in the National Archives in the 1900’s. There’s all this human information that needs to be stored, needs to be retired at some point.

Dirk:
A lot of it probably just needs to be destroyed, frankly.

Jon:
Yes. Perhaps, that would apply to my family films.

Dirk:
I wasn’t referring to family films necessarily but …

Jon:
Sure. There’s jazz recordings. There’s cool stuff that the National Archives has, but the point is that there’s this growing amount of informational stuff that some of it we want to save and some of it’s just should go away, but the DNA storage seems to be a way to archive in a very small space. It’s encoding into synthetic DNA. Of all companies, Microsoft is starting to show leadership in this area.

Dirk:
Wait, wait. Microsoft showing leadership. I’m not sure they should be in the same paragraph.

Jon:
Yes. I don’t know either. It’s shocking. Their new CEO is taking the reigns here on some emerging technology items and pushing forward.

Dirk:
Wow.

Jon:
Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening in the world anymore.

Microsoft is hooked up with a San Francisco company called Twist Bioscience, and they agreed to buy millions of strands of DNA from Twist Bioscience, and they’re going to be using it for research, essentially, for information storage and retrieval. As you might expect, the information retrievals part is not like read and write really fast like on your computer. This is long term storage that we’re talking about. We’re basically going from … You think of the cassette tapes, the Super 8, the CD, even the key fobs. These things will last decades if you’re lucky, and they will decay. Whereas DNA, it’s possible, if you keep it in the right environment, it’s going to last thousands of years.

The theory is that this storage, if you can make it commercially viable, is going to be more or less apocalypse proof.

Dirk:
Let’s step back. Let’s step back.

Jon:
Yes. No, no, no. Yes. Let’s do that.

Dirk:
You just said that DNA as a storage medium will last for thousands of years.

Jon:
Probably.

Dirk:
Earlier, you used the phrase “synthetic DNA”. Are we talking about the little ladders in our body here when we talk about DNA storage or are we talking about something completely different and man made?

Jon:
When we talk about synthetic biology, we’re talking about DNA that’s synthesized using all the same chemical components as what is stored in our body, but it’s used for different purposes. In this case, the encoding is using all the, like I said, all the same chemicals, but specifically done so that it can be used to store digital information. It’s not meant to create living beings like an animal or a micro organism or a human being. It’s just using the coding technique, per se, to create this information storage paradigm.

Dirk:
Okay.

Jon:
As I was saying, in theory, we’re talking about something that’s apocalypse proof. When we all decide that we’re so stratified in this nation and it comes to blows and the generations down the road can go and find our DNA storage of these terabytes and petabytes of information and take a look at what 21st century america looked like.

Dirk:
Because after the apocalypse, they’re going be really interested in people’s WordPress pages saved on DNA. It’s all a little silly.

Jon:
It is. It is silly if you think about the treatise of our information technology, but at the same, there also is some wonderful stuff that I’m sure is being produced, maybe not by me, but there’s valuable stuff to save from this century, for sure.

I love observing the bio inspired technologies and information technologies becoming intertwined here, and I think it’s really fascinating that the storage media that we’re talking about today is not just bio inspired. That’s the code of life. That’s DNA. This is the most useful pattern for storing information that we see right now. Whether or not that will change in the future, I don’t know. There’s this sense that mother nature kind of did it right like the design patters resident in biology are becoming accessible to human kind for a variety of reasons. Of course, we’re seeing sort of the tip of the iceberg here with the way that we can potentially use DNA to store things.

Bio inspired technology is very slowly … You can see it slowly start to creep into areas that we only thought that … Silicon chips, pieces of plastics were the way we were going to go. Now, we’re going into the organic realm.

Dirk:
The synthetic organic realm.

Jon:
Right. That to me is really mind blowing. I’ve spoken a lot on this so far, Dirk. I can tell, some of it you think is silly, some not. What’s your take?

Dirk:
I just think in the context of what we’re talking about, some of it is silly, but it’s actually all very interesting and very inspiring. The life sciences are in the midst of this revolution, this renaissance, this blossoming. It’s basically accepted that we’ve learned more about the human animal in the last 10 years than we did in the whole previous history of humanity, which if you think about, is totally freaking incredible, right? That wealth of information that is coming to us so quickly, that wealth of knowledge, is dove tailing directly into the digital technologies that have been proceeding for decades now. It’s all becoming sort of commercializable real world functioning forms, instead of A: the sciences being much more rudimentary, but B: the sciences being trapped in the university and in the lab. They’re being infused to the front line of companies and products, and that’s going to only accelerate in the years ahead.

Actually think it’s all very exciting and inspiring within the context of long term digital storage. I just think most of the crap already being stored is nonsense.

Jon:
That’s right.

Dirk:
That’s all, but I do think, in general, the trend is pulling together bio science with digital technology is really awe inspiring.

Jon:
Yeah. I think you raised a good point there about commercialization, which is that there’s this delta between when we hear about these scientific discoveries and when they become commercially viable. There is no immediate product that you can go out and purchase. I suppose if you were extremely clever, you could encode some piece of digital information in DNA and go and get that synthesized. There’s certainly DNA synthesis that’s available to labs. I imagine that you could pull that off, but you’re not going to be storing your family photos. In the next year or two, you’re not going to be storing family photos in a little vial of DNA sitting on your desk for …

Dirk:
Bill Gates might.

Jon:
Yeah. Someone like that might. It is interesting to think that we have these artificial computing devices. I’m using artificial or manufactured or industrial generated products, and as we start looking more towards biology as providing some of the patterns for inspiration, there’s these ideas of organic pieces becoming the computing, the information storage, the generators of materials, even. Using bugs, for instance, to generate biodegradable plastic. All of the industrial revolution is moving aside towards this bio revolution that we’re privileged enough to see unfolding. I know it’s not happening tomorrow, but you can sense it coming on the horizon. I think it’s going to be just as transformative, if not more, than the industrial revolutions and information revolutions.

Dirk:
Yeah. I think that’s certainly true. The question is just worded to draw the lines around the revolutions. Is this a discrete biological revolution? Is it discretely than the information revolution, the digital revolution? Where to draw those macro lines, I’m not sure about, but I think without question, what’s going to happen in the decades ahead will more change the landscape of humanity than even the industrial revolution itself, which is pretty humbling.

Jon:
Yeah. I think it’s going to be a lot of to talk about this and to watch it unfold. That’s for sure. Maybe to learn a little bit about how to leverage these technologies as they come around. It is important to remember that at the core of the show, there is the focus on design, and these emerging technologies need design. This is part of our perspective in that the technology is wonderful, but the human use of that technology is important as well, and all of these emerging technologies very much need the human interaction component, …

Dirk:
For now.

Jon:
… the design component. Yeah.

Dirk:
For now.

Jon:
Until AI takes our jobs.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” on The Digital Life, and go to the page of this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me at Twitter, @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 154, The Digital Life, for Dirk Knemeyer. I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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