For half a century, silicon has been the semiconductor industry’s lifeblood. The processor in your computer and the memory in your phone are embedded in silicon chips.
But big problems are emerging.
While silicon is one of the world’s most common elements, most of it is found in impure forms. The supply of silicon pristine enough to make into chips is dwindling. This threatens the future of digital memory, at a time when memory usage is growing fast. And as usage grows, so does demand for electricity, especially at power-guzzling data centers.
Scientists at Boise State, Harvard and a few other universities, and at Boise’s Micron Technology Inc., think these trends cannot continue. They are working on a solution: a new way to make memory that uses DNA, the self-replicating carrier of heredity.
It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi movies. You can picture Matt Damon or Jennifer Lawrence fighting to save the human race from robots reproducing themselves with DNA run amok.
The scientists say DNA memory is less ominous than that. They say it’s likely to offer new markets to memory manufacturers like Micron — and new benefits to the rest of us — by dramatically reducing the electrical energy required to maintain data, by taking pressure off the silicon supply, and by storing data in a tiny fraction of the space that silicon requires.
Read on to learn about this emerging technology and how it may affect your future.
What is DNA?
It is an abbreviation for a chemical, deoxyribonucleic acid, in the cells of most organisms. DNA determines the role and structure of cells and carries genetic information from parent to child. A DNA molecule has two strings in the form of a double helix, with ladder-like bonds linking the twisted strings. The strings separate when the DNA replicates itself.
Boise State is developing what the university calls nucleic-acid memory, or NAM for short.
What is memory?
Computer memory performs one or both of two basic roles: to store data temporarily for a processor to use it efficiently, and to store data permanently so it can be retrieved any time.
Memory is inside almost every digital device. It is tied ever more tightly to our lives, from the phones in our pockets to data centers that serve everything from your Facebook feed to national intelligence gathering.
But using DNA for memory sounds a bit creepy.
Researchers use some viral DNA and some that is manufactured.
They don’t use human DNA. They use DNA from phages, which are common viruses within (and that fight) bacteria. Researchers buy the phages and manufactured, nonbiological DNA from companies that sell it.
Labs have engineered phages for decades with no problems, said Will Hughes, the director of the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering at Boise State, and two of his colleagues, Eric Hayden and Reza Zadegan. The viruses infect bacteria, not humans, the scientists said in a joint statement to the Idaho Statesman.
Human DNA is automatically rejected by companies that synthesize DNA, even if it occurs by accident in the design process, they said. “Even if a small part of a yet to be discovered human viral sequence was inserted into NAM, it would lack the full instructions needed to replicate,” they said.
How can DNA solve the memory problem?
Scientists have learned that sequences of molecules called nucleotides in DNA can store other information besides a living organism’s genetic heritage.
“The calculations we’ve done are that DNA is 1,000 times more dense than flash memory,”Hughes said in an interview. “It can store information for thousands to millions of years, depending on how it’s stored. And the energy of operation is 100 million times less than all electronic and magnetic memory today.
“Today, all the information that we have can fit into a 10-by-10-by-10-centimeter box of DNA,” Hughes said. That’s about the same size as a 12-ounce can of peanuts.
When might DNA memory become practical to use? “Ten years is a good window,” Hughes thinks.
How did Boise State get into this?
Hughes said faculty in his school took an interest in DNA memory work.
Micron played a role, too. The chip maker supported materials research at Boise State long before work started on DNA memory. Micron donated $2 million 15 years ago to establish the materials sciences program, $13 million six years ago to create a doctoral program in the field, and $25 million three years ago to build the Micron Center for Materials Research now under construction on University Drive. (The university says that latest gift is the largest it has ever received.)
A Micron memory scientist, Gurtej Sandhu, who holds the seventh-highest number of U.S. patents of anyone in the world, was interested in DNA’s potential. He helped connect Boise State’s faculty to the Semiconductor Research Corp., an industry consortium. The corporation and the National Science Foundation awarded Boise State researchers $1.5 million, and the state of Idaho kicked in $2 million, to create the Nucleic Acid Memory Institute in the materials-science school.
An undergraduate student and a Ph.D. student programmed a strand of DNA to fold into the shape of the letter B that is the Boise State University logo. Hughes said that in four hours, the students produced one trillion identical Bs, each too tiny to be seen even under a conventional optical microscope.
What is materials science, anyway?
The study of the manipulation of substances. It emerged as a distinct discipline after World War II. Materials science draws upon physics, chemistry and engineering to create things such as cars with the strength of steel but the lightness of aluminum. With DNA memory, materials science now incorporates biology, too.
“I think of materials science as construction, just at a very small scale,” Hughes said. “Instead of a building being rebar and concrete, you start to think about the building blocks being atoms and molecules. We can engineer the interactions between those atoms and molecules to have interesting properties.”
Q: I like my phone to have a lot of memory. Will DNA memory be used in phones?
The research hasn’t advanced far enough to say, but Boise State’s scientists say DNA probably won’t match silicon’s capabilities in certain uses such as phones.
They think DNA memory is best suited, at least for now, to easing the approaching crisis in large-scale information storage caused by the rise of artificial intelligence, cloud computing and “big data” for scientific, financial, governmental and genetic analysis.
Hughes and Elton Graugnard, an assistant professor of materials science at Boise State, think the likeliest first commercial use will be the archival storage of data. DNA will enable a kind of giant backup system to preserve information, especially that which is unlikely to be accessed often. Think of legal, financial and medical records. Think of the photos you back up to Google and never look at again, or the operational data for a jet flight that no one is likely to need unless the jet crashes.
Data centers contain oceans of data on hard drives, but they still rely on magnetic tape for reliable storage and retrieval of information decades into the future. Data on drives can degrade in a few years, especially when accessed frequently, and tapes’ reliability degrades after about 10 years. Hughes and Graugnard think DNA could reliably store retrievable information for a century, or even millennia.
Hughes and Graugnard also think DNA will be able to store information in an environmentally friendly way. Silicon requires mining, and Hughes said data storage’s demand for electric power is insatiable. That worries him.
“I”m doing this because I think our current practices are unsustainable economically, financially and culturally,” he said, “and I see DNA as a remarkably renewable resource.”