DNA of things: storing DNA in objects

17 December 2019

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DNA stanford bunny

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DNA stores our biological blueprint, and it can now store the blueprint of common objects too...

A new technology can turn any common object into a memory stick by mixing in synthetic DNA inside tiny particles.

Materials scientists tested it by 3D printing a plastic statue of rabbit - one of the first designs ever used for 3D printing, the ‘Stanford bunny’ - but with the design instructions hidden inside as DNA code.

“We use exactly the same molecule as biology uses to store our own blueprints, but we don’t use natural DNA,” explained researcher Robert Grass. “We have the DNA chemically synthesised in the sequence we design it for.”

“You can take a piece of the bunny, read the 3D file from which it was made in the DNA, and use that to make more clones of that original bunny.”

Scientists have been aware of the potential to use DNA molecules for digital storage for years. “Theoretically, we can store tremendous amounts of information in DNA,” Robert Grass said. “Probably all the information we have in the world would fit into a few grams of DNA.”

Whereas computer code is stored as ones and zeroes, DNA has twice the number of different letters in its code: the four “base” molecules that make up the blueprint for all living things.

However, scientists have not used DNA to store information before - because it’s generally only stable when it’s in a liquid. The team got around this restriction by encapsulating synthetic DNA in tiny glass particles - on the nano scale - that protect it from decaying.

The small capsules protect the information-storing DNA enough for it to be safely mixed into plastic. “DNA on its own does not mix with polymers, and even if it did it would not be stable,” said Grass.

“Once we have the DNA in these particles, we take a polymer solution, we mix the particles with the polymer solution, solidify the polymer, and then the polymer contains particles - containing the DNA, containing the digital file.”

The team then tested whether they could make a new bunny using the DNA from a previous one.

In the process of reading the information stored in the DNA in the bunny, about 5% of the data is lost, but in their design they included an 80% digital redundancy. “So you could lose 80% of the DNA and you could still be able to perfectly recover the bunny,” said Grass.

“So far we have done 5 generations, but we could do over a 100 generations, and they would still be perfect clones of the original bunny”

Ultimately, this technique allows inanimate objects to carry their own designs inside them, just like living things do.

“At the moment, information of the product is always either on paper or somewhere on the internet. Here we can guarantee that information is never lost as long as you have the product.”

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