Seagate is bringing its lab-on-a-chip technology to Catalog’s DNA storage technology to enable faster and much, much smaller devices to read data stored in DNA. What is a lab-on-a-chip, and why is Seagate involved with this concept?
A laboratory on a chip is a device for carrying out chemical reactions, using minute amounts of fluids, and registering the results. Lab-on-a-chip devices have been developed by researchers developing cost-effective and rapid diagnostic testing of patients. These chips include all the steps from sample-in to result-out, at the point of care, such as the doctor’s office or patient home, rather than in a hospital’s diagnostic laboratory. They can detect protein markers so as to diagnose cardiac diseases and nucleic acid markers to look for infectious diseases. The COVID rapid lateral flow test kit can be seen as a very simple lab test on a chip size device, being a single use, single function unit for checking the presence of the COVID virus antigen in a sample of fluid.
Chip-based labs are functionally specific and can use micro-fluidic technology to move droplets through the device as a way of pre-treating a sample before it is tested. The pre-treatment may purify or amplify biomarkers whose presence is being tested.
Catalog’s current Shannon technology has demonstrated writing and reading data using DNA storage technology but the equipment needs to be housed in a room, which Catalog says is the size of a small kitchen. Seagate says the results of its joint research with Catalog are expected to reduce Shannon’s size by a factor of 1,000 and also increase the automation and scalability of Catalog’s platform.
It is not obvious why Seagate is involved in this technology. Its primary focus is manufacturing hard disk drives – nothing to do with making or using chemical laboratories on a chip. It has been involved in fluidics through the use of fluid bearings for disk drive motors. A viscous oil is used instead of metal ball bearings to support the drive shaft. Fluid dynamic bearing motors have no metal-to-metal contact and are quieter than metal bearings, withstand more shock forces and have a theoretical infinite life.
But this use of a particular viscous fluid is a long way away from DNA-based lab-on-a-chip work.
A Catalog blog talks about desktop and IoT-size devices and states: “The collaboration will center on using Seagate’s ‘lab on a chip’ technology to reduce the volume of chemistry required for DNA-based storage and computation. Using the Seagate platform, tiny droplets of synthetic DNA can test chemistry at significantly smaller levels. These droplets will be processed through dozens of reservoirs on the Seagate platform. DNA from individual reservoirs is mixed to produce chemical reactions for a range of computing functions, including search and analytics, machine learning, and process optimization.”
This appears to be focussed on computation more than storage and is not a near-term research effort.
Hyunjun Park, founding Catalog CEO, said in a canned quote: “This work with Seagate is essential to eventually lowering costs and reducing the complexity of storage systems.”
Seagate DNA storage background
In December 2021, nine months ago, Seagate wanted to recruit a research engineer for lab-on-a-chip work. The job spec requirements document said “This position offers a variety of opportunities to prototype, experiment and benchmark new ideas and concepts in lab-on-a-chip domain.”
“The engineer will be involved in exciting projects in lab-on-a-chip involving designing experiments to proofs-of-concept. The successful candidate will also work with the global team of Seagate researchers in designing and fabricating microfluidic devices, evaluating systems, as well as analyzing and documenting the results for internal as well external reports and presentations.”
Candidates should have “Theoretical and practical knowledge of DNA amplification techniques (PCR, LAMP, rolling circle amplification, etc.). ”
It is obvious that Seagate Research was looking at DNA storage then. In fact it has been looking into DNA storage for some time before that.
Seagate patents for DNA storage and microfluidics
Seagate has been involved in research engineering into DNA storage and microfluidics for two and a half years and has been involved in four patents that we know of. For example, Ed Gage, Seagate VP For Research, is a contributor to a patent applications involving microfluidics:
- Microwave Heating Device for Lab On A Chip – Publication number: 20220048032
- Filed: August 9, 2021
- Publication date: February 17, 2022
- Inventors: Tim Rausch, Edward Charles Gage, Walter R. Eppler, Gemma Mendonsa.
Tim Rausch, now at AWS, was at Seagate between May 2003 and November 2020. Edward Charles Gage is Seagate VP for research. Walter Eppler is a technologist at Seagate Technology. Gemma Mendonsa is a biomedical engineer at Seagate.
Eppler and Mendonsa filed a patent for Methods and Systems for Reading DNA Storage Genes in August 2020.
Rausch, Eppler and Mendonsa filed a patent for Microfluidic Lab-on-a-Chip for Gene Synthesis in April 2020. The abstract states: “A microfluidic lab-on-a-chip system for DNA gene assembly that utilizes a DNA symbol library and a DNA linker library. The lab-on-a-chip has a fluidic platform with a plurality of arrays operably connected to a voltage source and a controller for the voltage source …”
Text in this application reads: “DNA is an emerging technology for data storage. Current methods assert that a DNA strand or gene, to store 5KB of data, can be written in 14 days. Comparatively, magnetic disk drives and magnetic tapes both can write 1 TByte in about an hour. A single DNA base pair location can store 2 bits; thus, 4000 Giga-base pairs would need to be stored in an hour to match the capabilities of a single disk drive or tape. Although current technology is believed to be capable of writing 15 base pairs an hour, there needs to be an 8 to 9 order of magnitude improvement in order for DNA data storage to be viable.” The application includes a “method of synthesizing a DNA gene on a lab-on-a-chip” which can speed up DNA storage writing.
The three researchers filed a second application in this area in the same month: Methods of Gene Assembly and their use in DNA Data Storage.
We have asked Seagate for a briefing to explain how and why it became involved in DNA data storage.
Our investigations tuned up Gareth McClean, a process engineer – electroplating at Seagate Technology in Derry, Northern Ireland, whose listed specialities in fluorescence-based immunoassay detection systems, focussing on the point of care market in the field of medical diagnostics, and also microfluidic-based diagnostic devices for the point of care market. This is possibly a coincidence.
In December 2021 Chinese DNA storage researchers announced they had developed a SlipChip – a microfluidic device to hold the DNA chemicals and the various reagents. A single SlipChip can be an electrode and its electrical charge altered by the presence or absence of DNA sequences.
The SlipChip can be classified, we think, as a lab-on-a-chip.