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“DNA of Things” – New storage technique uses DNA to store data in everyday objects

Written by Tue 10 Dec 2019

Researchers claim method allows data to be stored in “almost any” object

With data being produced at an exponential rate, research teams and organisations are working hard to improve the efficiency and sustainability of storage technology, leading to a raft of experimental research projects.

Last month, researchers from the University of Alberta demonstrated a new atomic-based storage technique that uses hydrogen gas to rewrite data. And a Microsoft storage project recently announced it had successfully stored the movie Superman on quartz glass.

But a new method detailed in the journal Nature this week is perhaps the most audacious-sounding yet. It uses DNA molecules to store digital information in tiny glass beads, which can then be embedded into almost “any object” — from shirt buttons to water bottles.

DNA contains the instructions needed for an organism to develop, survive and reproduce — productive information that inanimate objects do not inherently possess. Anyone who wishes to reproduce a 3D object, therefore, has to rely on an additional set of instructions separate from the object itself.

This led researchers at ETH Zurich, in collaboration with Israeli scientist Yaniv Erlich, to investigate whether the productive power of DNA could be integrated into ordinary objects — research that has now borne fruit.

“With this method, we can integrate 3D-​printing instructions into an object, so that after decades or even centuries, it will be possible to obtain those instructions directly from the object itself,” explained Robert Grass, project researcher and professor at ETH Zurich’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences.

The method builds on two recent breakthroughs in DNA storage. One, developed by Grass, is a technique for marking objects with a 100-bit DNA “barcode” embedded in glass nanobeads. The other, developed by Erlich, makes it theoretically possible to store 215,000 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA.

By combining these two innovations, the scientists were able to store high volumes of data in ordinary objects, a storage form they have dubbed the “DNA of Things”.

To prove the concept, the researchers 3D printed a rabbit out of plastic, that contained the instructions for printing the object in the form of DNA-bearing glass beads. They then showed it was possible to retrieve the instructions from the beads and print a new rabbit from scratch, a procedure they repeated five times. According to Grass and Erlich, the instructions can survive for several generations.

In another demonstration, the scientists stored a 1.4mb short film about a World War II archive in glass beads before blending the beads into the lenses of a pair of spectacles –  data that was literally hidden in plain sight.

The researchers said the method could one day be used to “chip” medications and construction materials with information about them, such as their quality, producer or origin.

As things stand, the storage medium is still in concept phase and is too expensive for practical application. Translating a 3D-printing file using the technique costs around 2,000 Swiss francs per transfer, mainly due to the cost of synthesising DNA molecules.

  • Via ETH News.

Written by Tue 10 Dec 2019


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