To promote the German series Biohackers, released in August 2020, Netflix stored the first episode on artificial DNA, synthesized by US company Twist Bioscience. What if we stored digital data in DNA, rather than in the cloud? The rather surprising idea is garnering quite an interest from digital giants. With its density and very long lifespan, DNA is an ideal material for storage. According to an article published in Science Magazine in 2017, a single gramme of synthetic DNA can store 215 petabytes of data – the equivalent of 100 million films! In 2018, researchers from ETHZ succeeded in storing the entire Mezzanine album by Massive Attack on a few strands of DNA. "This method allows us to archive music for hundreds of thousands of years," said Robert Grass, professor at ETHZ. Comparatively, music storage on a CD will only last for about 30 years.
To explore this potential, in November 2020 software giant Microsoft and hard drive specialist Western Digital announced the creation of a "DNA Storage Alliance" with Illumina and Twist Bioscience. Within this alliance, Illumina will supply its expertise in reading DNA, so that the stored data can be accessed. But the biggest challenge is producing synthetic DNA to build a new type of hard drive. And that’s where Twist Bioscience comes in. While the cost of producing synthetic DNA remains prohibitive (nearly $3,500 per megabyte), Twist has developed a technology that produces DNA on silicon chips, which could drastically reduce the price.
The stakes are high. Beyond data storage, synthetic DNA is seen as the next big thing in genomics after sequencing, since it could have applications in a variety of fields such as biofuels, biotherapeutics and biomaterials. For example, the company Impossible Foods has already used synthetic DNA to produce a haemoglobin-equivalent that makes its artificial meat "bloody". Twist Bioscience is currently leading this growing market, but several private start-ups are hard at work, such as DNA Technologies, Eurofins Genomics and DNA Script. Most analysts recommend holding shares in Twist, which already increased by more than 540% since the start of 2020.