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Award recognizes research on DNA data storage

Strauss and Ceze
Microsoft’s Karin Strauss and the University of Washington’s Luis Ceze have earned the 2020 Maurice Wilkes Award from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Architecture. (UW Photo)

University of Washington computer science professor Luis Ceze and Microsoft principal research manager Karin Strauss have won a prestigious award from the Association of Computing Machinery for their work on DNA-based data storage systems.

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Artist pays tribute to DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin

Artist Kate Thompson with Rosalind Franklin portrait
Artist Kate Thompson worked samples of synthetic DNA into the ink and acrylic coating for her portrait of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin. (University of Washington Photo / Dennis Wise)

On one level, multimedia artist Kate Thompson’s work shows the black-and-white visage of Franklin — the late biochemist whose famous “Photo 51” revealed the double-helix structure of life’s most vital molecule, even though she didn’t get her full share of credit for it.

Look more closely, and you’ll see a mosaic of 2,000 images submitted by the general public as part of UW’s #MemoriesInDNA project.

And if you were to scrape off a few flakes of paint and process them in a DNA lab, you could read out the pixels that make up all of those images and more, translated from the four-letter genetic code of life to the ones and zeroes of digital data.

“This portrait is not only preserving Franklin’s memory, but preserving the data as well, in a form that will be accessible to future generations,” Karin Strauss, co-director of UW’s Molecular Information Systems Laboratory and principal research manager at Microsoft Research, said today in a news release about the art project.

Thompson’s portrait arguably ranks as the most visual and publicly accessible demonstration of mass data storage in DNA, which has been the focus of study at MISL for years.

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UW, Microsoft join $25M DNA data storage project

Image: DNA in test tube
All the movies, images and other digital data from more than 600 basic smartphones (10 terabytes) can be stored in the pink smear of DNA at the end of this test tube. (Credit: Tara Brown Photography / UW)

The University of Washington and Microsoft will take part in a federally funded effort to develop data storage techniques using synthetic DNA.

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Automated DNA data storage demonstrated

DNA data storage system
Microsoft and University of Washington researchers built an automated system that was fed by bottles of chemicals to encode date in custom-designed DNA molecules. (Microsoft / UW Image)

DNA data storage holds the promise of putting huge amounts of information into a test tube — but who wants to carry test tubes around a data center all day?

Researchers from Microsoft ahd the University of Washington are working on a better way: a completely automated system that can turn digital bits into coded DNA molecules for storage, and turn those molecules back into bits when needed.

They used their proof-of-concept system, described in a paper published today in Nature Scientific Reports, to encode the word “hello” in strands of DNA and then read it out. That may sound like a ridiculously simple task, but it served to show that the system works.

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Arch Mission gets set to send DNA library to moon

Peregrine lander
An artist’s conception shows Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander on the lunar surface. (Astrobotic Illustration)

DNA-based data storage systems have been proposed as a theoretical way to preserve information for millennia on the moon, but the idea isn’t so theoretical anymore.

The Arch Mission Foundation says it’s partnering with Microsoft, the University of Washington and Twist Bioscience to send an archive of 10,000 crowdsourced images, the full text of 20 books and other information on Astrobotic’s 2020 mission to the moon.

All of the data for those files will be encoded in strands of synthetic DNA that could easily fit within a tiny glass bead. The Microsoft-UW-Twist team has already demonstrated how the method can be used for efficient storage and retrieval of data files, including an OK Go music video.

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DNA evidence zeroes in on 3 African ivory cartels

Elephant tusks
Elephant tusks from an ivory seizure in 2015 are laid out in Singapore after they have been sorted into pairs. (Center for Conservation Biology / University of Washington)

DNA evidence and lots of detective work have revealed the networks behind illegal trade in African elephant ivory, centering on three smuggling cartels in Kenya, Uganda and Togo.

The case is laid out in a paper written by a team led by Samuel Wasser, head of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, and published today in the open-access journal Science Advances.

Wasser said the findings could figure in a complex case centering on Feisal Mohamed Ali, a reputed ivory kingpin based in Mombasa, Kenya. Feisal was convicted on trafficking charges in 2016 but was set free last month on appeal, due to problems with the evidence that was at hand for the trial.

“Our hope is that the data presented in this paper, and discovered by others, can help strengthen the case against this cartel, and tie Feisal and his co-conspirators to multiple large ivory seizures,” he said.

In addition to the Mombasa cartel, the DNA evidence points to Entebbe in Uganda and Lome in Togo as centers of the illegal African ivory trade.

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Find out how to store your data in DNA

DNA data storage experiment
University of Washington researcher Lee Organick (foreground) and Microsoft researcher Yuan-Jyue Chen (background) work in the Molecular Information Systems Lab. (UW Photo / Dennis Wise)

Scientists from the University of Washington and Microsoft are improving their system for preserving digital data in strands of synthetic DNA — and they’re giving you the chance to participate.

The UW-Microsoft team laid out the method in a research paper published this week in Nature Biotechnology.

For the experiment described in the paper, text files as well audio, images and a high-definition music video featuring the band OK Go were first digitally encoded, and then converted into chemical coding — that is, adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine, which make up the ATCG alphabet for DNA base pairs.

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DNA sequencer in space solves a mystery

Peggy Whitson with DNA secquencer
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson performed the Genes in Space-3 investigation on the International Space Station using devices that amplify and sequence microbial DNA samples. (NASA Photo)

NASA isn’t saying it’s aliens — but the space agency is touting its ability to identify organisms using the first DNA sequencer in orbit.

Oxford Nanopore Technologies’ palm-sized MiniON sequencer was sent up to the International Space Station last year, and it’s now been paired up with a DNA replicator that’s able to amplify genetic samples through a process known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

Together, the devices were employed to check bacterial samples as part of an experimental campaign called Genes in Space-3.

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How evildoers could hack into DNA data

DNA data output
This output from a sequencing machine includes the University of Washington team’s exploit, which is being sequenced with a number of unrelated strands. Each dot represents one strand of DNA in a given sample. (UW Photo / Dennis Wise)

Computer scientists are turning DNA into a new frontier for data storage and information processing, but a team from the University of Washington says it could become a frontier for cybercrime as well.

To prove their point, the researchers turned a snippet of malicious computer code into a string of synthetic DNA, and then used it to take control of a computer that was programmed to search for patterns in the raw files that emerge from DNA sequencing.

They also found known security gaps in many of the open-source software programs that are used to analyze DNA sequencing data.

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Scientists double down on DNA data storage

DNA data storage experiment
The University of Washington’s Luis Ceze and Lee Organick prepare DNA containing digital data for sequencing. (UW Photo / Tara Brown Photography)

Twist Bioscience says it’s extending its collaboration with Microsoft and the University of Washington on a project aimed at perfecting a process for encoding digital data in DNA molecules.

In a news release issued today, San Francisco-based Twist said Microsoft will purchase 10 million strands of synthetic DNA from the company for use in future experiments. The deal comes more a year after an initial purchase of the same number of strands for data storage.

Last July, researchers at Microsoft and UW announced that they were able to store and read out a record 200 megabytes of DNA-encoded data with 100 percent accuracy.

“After working together for over a year, the organizations have improved storage density, thereby reducing the cost of DNA digital data storage by encoding more data per strand and increasing the throughput of DNA production,” Twist said.

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