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IARPA Commits $48M to DNA Data Storage

NEW YORK – The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity has awarded a total of $48 million to two groups seeking to develop digital data storage with synthetic DNA.

The Molecular Encoding Consortium, led by Robert Nicol of the Broad Institute, announced Wednesday a $23 million award from IARPA's molecular information storage (MIST) program. The consortium also includes the Donhee Ham research group at Harvard University and French synthetic DNA startup DNA Script. In a statement, consortium members said they planned to collaborate with Illumina to decode DNA-stored data using next-generation sequencing.

IARPA also awarded $25 million to the Georgia Tech Research Institute for its scalable molecular archival software & hardware (SMASH) project. Twist Bioscience announced Wednesday that it will synthesize DNA for the SMASH project as a subcontractor. SMASH will also include teams from the University of Washington, Microsoft, and Roswell Biotechnologies.

Twist said it will receive up to $9.2 million in fees. Under the terms of its agreement, Twist will deliver "a DNA synthesis platform on silicon that 'writes,' or synthesizes, enough DNA per day to allow the cost of storing digital data to be as low as $1 per gigabyte."

"DNA is the ideal way to store information for long periods of time," Illumina CTO Mostafa Ronaghi said in a statement. "We are excited by the opportunity to collaborate with the early pioneers involved in this project and having our SBS chemistry and instruments used to decode the digital information."

"Fifty years ago, DNA data storage was considered science fiction," Twist CEO and Cofounder Emily Leproust said in a statement. "Today, it is science with a path toward broad implementation. We expect in the next three to five years, with the proper amount of government and industry investment, it will become a reality for long-term storage." The firm has long touted its plans to develop the technology for long-term data storage using DNA.

IARPA launched its MIST program in 2018 with a goal of developing data storage technologies that scale to the capacity of 1 billion gigabytes or more with reduced physical footprint and power consumption. The program, which IARPA expects to last for four years, will explore technologies in three technical areas: storage, retrieval, and operating systems.

As part of the SMASH award, $5.5 million is earmarked for a new CMOS chip design to enable DNA writing using the efficiencies of current semiconductor technologies. Georgia Tech will conduct this research, but Twist said it will implement the design commercially. Researchers at UW and Microsoft will contribute system architecture, data analysis, and software development expertise. Roswell Biotechnologies will provide a high-throughput DNA data reader chip and platform.