The machine itself doesn’t look very impressive.
In fact, it looks more like a home experiment…something you might use to distil your own gin or vodka.
The are a few working parts: some glass bottles…some chemicals…a few sequencing devices.
In total it cost researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington about $10,000 to make this prototype.
But believe me, this machine has huge potential.
What we see here is a new type of device…
One that will soon be capable of storing billions of times more data than your personal computer.
It’s all down to the material the machine uses to process information.
This particular material has the potential to perform calculations many times faster than the world’s most powerful computers.
Consider its properties…
- You can fit 10 trillion molecules of this material into 1 cubic centimetre.
- With that small amount, the computer would be able to perform 10 trillion calculations at a time.
- Just one pound of this material has the capacity to store more information that all electronic computers ever built.
What is it exactly?
It’s DNA: the material your genes are made of.
In fact, scientists have long touted DNA’s potential as an ideal storage medium.
Our DNA contains the collected information from millions years of evolution.
All the instructions that have ever been passed between cells, organisms, bacteria and verterbrates are stored in DNA.
DNA is basically nature’s storage system.
And its very stable.
As Microsoft points out, some DNA has held up for tens of thousands of years in mammoth tusks and the bones of early humans.
DNA is ideal for computer storage too.
It’s extremely dense: compact enough to fit the entire internet in a shoebox.
It’s easy to find.
The energy required for storage is extremely low, (less than a light bulb’s worth of power per year).
And unlike the toxic materials use to make traditional microprocessors, DNA biochips can be made cleanly.
In the past few years, researchers have encoded all kinds of things in DNA strings, mostly by hand: War and Peace, Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” a list of all the plant material archived in the Svalbard Seed Vault, and a music video.
Harvard researchers even created a living library by using E.Coli.
In a paper published in Nature, the researchers described how they used a Crispr system to insert bits of DNA encoded with photos and a GIF of a galloping horse into live bacteria.
When the scientists retrieved and reconstructed the images by sequencing the bacterial genomes, they got back the same images they put in with about 90 percent accuracy.
How we build a DNA computer
But what was once done by hand, can now by done by a machine.
The prototype developed by Microsoft could speed up this process immeasurably.
In the demonstration, the machine performed a very simple instruction…it converted the word “HELLO” into DNA and then back again.
There were a few steps.
- The device encoded the bits (1s and Os) into DNA sequences (A’s, C’s, T’s G’s).
- It then synthesized the DNA and stored it as a liquid.
- Next the stored DNA was read by a DNA sequencer
- Finally, the decoding software translated the sequences back into bits.
In all, the translation from bits to DNA and back again took 21 hours.
Researchers at Microsoft say that they have already found a way to reduce the time required by 10 to 12 hours.
So in order to replace existing silicon-chip storage technologies, DNA will have to get a lot cheaper to predictably read, write, and package.
It will take years to build a practical DNA computer.
But that will happen….
And when it does, we will have computers that are extremely powerful.
Many of the computers we use to day operate linearly: they take on tasks on at a time.
But DNA computers will perform calculations in parallel to other calculations.
These powerful computing power will be used by national governments for cracking secret codes, or by airlines wanting to map more efficient routes.
Studying DNA computers may also lead us to a better understanding of complex systems that are still beyond our understanding – such as the microbiome and the human brain.
In fact, Timothy Lu’s team at Harvard has already been designing bacteria to produce working electronic circuit boards.
Lu’s group re-engineered bacteria DNA so that proteins would bind metals.
This enabled them to program a pattern into biofilm – a bit like imprinting a pattern on fabric.
Then they sprinkled gold atoms onto the biofilm to create pathways of gold wires.
To complete the circuit board, the scientists equipped the fibre with nanoscale semiconductors that emit light.
With new chips, new circuit boards, and sequencing devices – all based on biological material – we are entering a strange and very exciting new phase for technology.
How you can profit
From an investors point of view, there are a few companies that will help drive this project forward and are well worth keeping an eye on.
The machine uses glass bottles of chemicals to build DNA strands, and a tiny sequencing machine from Oxford Nanopore to read them out again.
Oxford Nanopore is already a leader in low-cost DNA sequencing.
It makes the MinION sequencer, a portable device that can analyse DNA cheaply and quickly.
It weighs under 100g and can plug into a laptop.
This allows scientists in more than 70 countries to monitor and quickly access viruses and diseases in labs: keeping track of superbugs, testing animals, genomic research.
But this portable device also works in environments where sequencing machines are not readily available: crops, remote villages, under the sea, in the Arctic.
There is a huge potential market for this device.
And Oxford Nanopore has several others.
You can gain exposure through IG Group (LON:IGG).
This is a group that was set up to commercialise the best discoveries that are spun out of the UK’s top universities.
IP Group works in partnership with Oxford’s chemistry department, contributing funding towards it’s laboratories and getting an early look at discoveries coming out of the department.
It has since gone on to develop links with Oxford, Kings College, five prominent US universities including Princeton.
It supplies funding at the right time. And helps to commercialise the most promising projects, with a view to spinning out blockbuster companies as they take off.
Of course, there are a host of other larger DNA sequencing companies that offer a purer play.
Illumina (Nasdaq: ILMN) will lead a great deal of that research.
Illumina makes the DNA sequencers and support systems that have sequenced 80%-90% of the human genetic sequencing that’s been done so far.
If it’s familiar to UK investors, it’s probably through its core involvement in the Genomics England project to sequence 100,000 human genomes.
It controls over 70% of the global market in such systems, projected to grow into a $20 billion affair by 2020, all the while building up a swelling genomic dataset, and is not about to see its annual growth trajectory slip below 10% any time soon.
To find out more about how Illumina is leading research on the brain and our genes, have a read of my recent article on How gene-editing could boost your IQ.