Data

Nathan Strout

Where to store all this intelligence data? How about DNA?
On Jan. 15, IARPA launched Project MIST, a research effort aiming to deliver a device capable of writing data to synthetic DNA.
Data is a massive problem for the intelligence community. From the satellite images produced by the National Reconnaissance Office to the bulk communications data swept up by the National Security Agency, the intelligence community is collecting more information than ever before. But where to store it?
Data centers are massive warehouses and megawatts of power. The resource-intensive nature of these facilities makes them difficult to scale, and ultimately unprepared for a torrent of data.
Now, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity—the organization charged with tackling some of the intelligence community’s most difficult problems—thinks it has a solution: synthetic DNA. On Jan. 15, IARPA officially launched the Molecular Information Storage (MIST) program, an effort to use synthetic DNA to store exabytes (one million terabytes) of data.
IARPA has awarded multi-phase contracts to two teams pursuing a solution: up to $23 million for the Molecular Encoding Consortium and up to $25 million for Georgia Tech Research Institute.
“The MIST program is a data storage moonshot to develop technologies that allow us to shrink an exabyte-scale data warehouse down to a tabletop form factor, with equally large reductions in operation and maintenance costs,” said IARPA Program Manager David Markowitz. “This would be a transformative capability for big data stakeholders in government and industry.”
If successful, MIST will result in new devices capable of both writing data to and reading data from synthetic DNA media at scale. The goal is to make this technology commercially viable within three to five years.
To store data on synthetic DNA, digital files must first be converted from binary code to the format used for DNA—sequences of A,C,T and G. DNA is then synthesized in short segments that are identified by a sort of barcode that identifies where that segment exists in relation to the entire sequence, allowing readers to recall or copy only the necessary data.
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