DNA doubles as digital storage medium

December 10, 2019 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
DNA doubles as digital storage medium
To use everyday objects such as shirt buttons, water bottles or eyeglasses as data storage: This is to be made possible by using DNA as a storage medium. A research team involving ETH Zurich university is about to make this possible.

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.

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