Spinning rust? No, now Seagate’s working with DNA

Seagate has kicked off a collaboration with DNA storage pioneer Catalog Technologies Inc to shrink the start-up’s technology for encoding data into the stuff of life itself from room size to chip size.

With humans creating, processing, and storing ever more data, there’s always a nagging worry that current technologies based on rust or silicon are going to run out of road in the near future.

A number of firms are researching how to store data DNA – the organic chemical that encodes the genetic instructions that underpin all known forms of “life”.

Catalog says DNA has an informational density a million times that of SSDs, equating to 200PB per gram of DNA, a shelf life of 1000s of years, and is always readable – though the equipment required may evolve. The trick is how to get the data into DNA.

Catalog’s take is to use chunks of synthetically produced DNA molecules, rather than biological, cellular DNA, create combinations of those molecules, and develop an encoding scheme where the combined molecules represent the information to be stored.

It has developed a technology that uses what CTO David Turek likens to an inkjet printer to deposit and combine the liquid media containing the DNA onto a substrate. The combined DNA is collected in a pool of liquid, which is then reduced. However, this proof of concept platform, dubbed Shannon, is described as “the size of an average family kitchen”. And, presumably, we’re talking about an American family here.

Turek says the firms will look to shrink the technology a thousand times to create a “lab on a chip”, containing dozens of reservoirs of DNA molecules, which can be mixed to produce chemical reactions that will represent computing functions.

Catalog’s ambitions for DNA reach beyond just storage, and into forms of compute. Hyunjun Park, founding CEO of CATALOG, said in a canned statement that “In addition to DNA storage, CATALOG has already discovered the means to incorporate DNA into algorithms and applications with potential widespread cases including artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, and secure computing.”

For its part, Seagate, like its fellow disk makers, is well versed in working at infinitesimally small scale – whether it’s working out the aerodynamics of spinning platters moving at thousands of RPM or how to shingle blobs of rust to squeeze ever more data into the tracks on those platters.

The partnership with Seagate is essential to “eventually lowering costs and reducing the complexity of storage systems,” Park continued.