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Scientists Use DNA Data Storage to Hide Information in Everyday Objects

09/12/2019 - 4 minutes

Scientists have developed a method for storing DNA data in 3D-printed objects, which could one day allow machines to replicate themselves.

The group, based at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, as well as in Israel and the US, began by synthesizing DNA molecules that encode blueprints of the Stanford bunny, a rabbit-shaped object commonly used in testing computer graphics. 

The researchers embedded the DNA in small particles of silica to protect it. They then mixed these particles with a type of plastic called polycaprolactone, which is often used for 3D printing. Using the DNA-embedded plastic, the researchers then 3D printed the Stanford bunny. 

To check if they could replicate the 3D-printed Stanford bunny from the stored DNA, the team took a sample from the object, released the DNA from the plastic and silica using a range of chemicals, and sequenced the DNA. The scientists were able to make new bunnies using the extracted DNA without losing information to degradation.

We expect the data to last for decades if not more,” said Yaniv Erlich, Associate Professor at Columbia University, US, one of the leading researchers in the project. “We calculated that we can replicate the bunnies over a quadrillion times while still recovering the data correctly.

This study, published in Nature Biotechnology, takes a step towards autonomous self-replicating machines — a concept out of science fiction where machines are able to reproduce themselves without the help of humans like biological cells do. Autonomous self-replicating machines could have many applications including space travel and geoengineering. 

dna data storage stanford bunny self-replicating machine
The Stanford bunny is a model commonly used in computer graphics

The technique in this study required the manual replication of the Stanford bunnies, including extracting and reading the DNA instructions from the plastic. This means that it is a long way away from truly autonomous self-replicating machines. According to Erlich, automating the DNA extraction could be simple, but doing this for the DNA sequencing step is much harder.

At the moment, digital data are commonly stored on hard disks, which tend to be bulky and unable to cope with increasing demand for data storage in modern society. A number of research groups are developing ways to store data in the form of DNA because it can fit a huge amount of information in a small space. 

While previous research on DNA data storage has relied on storing the DNA in test tubes, the researchers in this study opened up a way to store DNA in everyday objects. In a separate part of the study, the scientists encoded a video file in synthetic DNA and embedded it in a pair of reading glasses. This could have applications such as storing information about medical implants within the implants, and even hiding secret information.

Think about your shirt buttons: we can store photos in them,” Erlich said to me. “Your glasses? Insert your electronic health records. Look at the wall — we can paint it with a dye that holds the blueprint to your house.

One of the main challenges of the DNA data storage field is that the process of writing DNA is currently very expensive. This limit may be addressed by cheaper synthesis technology in development by a number of companies. In addition, the price could be reduced by an increase in bulk production.

If you go for a mass production of objects, for instance printing Elsa dolls [from the movie Frozen] with the “Let It Go” song on them using DNA, then the price is quite small, as one DNA synthesis will be sufficient for millions of copies of the same song,” Erlich told me.

Images from Shutterstock and Trevorgoodchild/Wikimedia commons