DNA doubles as digital storage medium

DNA doubles as digital storage medium

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

Living creatures carry their own construction and operating instructions in the form of DNA. Not so inanimate objects: Anyone who produces an object with a 3D printer also needs a construction drawing. Years later, it is only possible to print the same object again if the original digital information is still available. Usually, the printing instructions are not stored in the object itself. Researchers at ETH Zurich, together with an Israeli colleague, want to change this. The team has developed a way of storing extensive information in almost any object. “This allows 3D printing instructions to be integrated into an object so that they can still be read directly from the object even after decades or centuries,” explains Robert Grass, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences. The information is stored in DNA molecules, just as it is stored in living organisms.

This is possible thanks to several developments in recent years. One is Grass’s approach to labelling products with a DNA “bar code” embedded in tiny glass beads. These nanoparticles can be used, for example, as tracers in geological investigations or to label high-quality foods in order to distinguish them from counterfeits. The barcode is relatively short: Just about 100 bits. This technology is currently being commercialised by the ETH spin-off Haelixa.

On the other hand, in recent years it has been possible to store large amounts of data in DNA. Grass’ colleague Yaniv Erlich, an Israeli computer scientist with whom he now collaborated, developed a method that theoretically makes it possible to store hundreds of terabytes in a single gram of DNA. As proof of feasibility, Grass stored an entire music album in DNA a year ago, equivalent to 15 megabytes of data.

Grass and Erlich have now combined these approaches into a new form of data storage, as reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology. They call this storage form “DNA of things” – in the style of the “Internet of things”, in which objects are connected to information via the Internet.

As an application example, the scientists used 3D printing to produce a plastic bunny that carries its own 100 kilobytes of building instructions. To embed the data into the 3D printed material, the researchers added DNA-containing glass beads to the plastic.

As in biology, this technological approach preserves information over several generations. The scientists showed this by recovering the printing information from a small part of the printed figure and printing a new bunny from it. They were able to repeat this process five times. So they produced a kind of “great-great grandson” of the bunny. “All other known forms of storage have a fixed geometry: a hard disk must look like a hard disk, a CD like a CD. You can’t change the shape without losing information,” says Erlich. “DNA is currently the only form of data storage that can also be available in liquid form. This allows us to incorporate it into objects of any form.”

Another application of the technology is to hide information in everyday objects, an approach konwin as steganography. To illustrate this, the scientists drew on a historical example: one of the few documents that today bear witness to life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the WW II is a secret archive that a Jewish historian and ghetto inhabitant set up at the time and hid in milk cans from Hitler’s troops. Today, this archive is part of the world heritage of documents. Grass, Erlich and their colleagues used the technology to store a 1.4 megabyte short film about this archive on glass beads, which they poured into an inconspicuous spectacle lens. “With such glasses, it would be no problem to pass through the security check at an airport and thus transport information undetected from one place to another,” says Erlich. In principle, it is possible to hide the glass beads in all plastic objects that do not have to be heated too much during production, such as epoxies, polyester, polyurethanes and silicones.

These inconspicuous glasses contain 15 MByte of stored data, a good example why DNA-bound data storage is ideally suited for steganography applications.

This technology could also be used to label medicines or building materials such as adhesives or paints, the scientists suggest. The information on their quality could be stored directly in the specific drug or building material, Grass says. Drug monitoring authorities would be able to read measurement results from production quality control directly from the product. In the case of buildings, for example, it would be possible to find out during a renovation which products were once used by which manufacturers during construction.

At present, however, the method is still expensive. A large part of this is accounted for by the synthesis of the corresponding DNA molecules. The larger the number of units of an object, the lower the cost of the individual unit.

More information:


Related articles:

Commercial DNA data storage ‘just a few years away’

Large-scale DNA data storage moves closer to reality

First fully automated DNA data storage demonstrated

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