What if we can store our favorite movie, or our entire PhD thesis, inside our favorite toy? Even if this question has never crossed your mind, rest-assured that scientists from ETH Zurich have recently developed a technique to do just that, using the world’s best storage architecture – DNA. Indeed, DNA storage can store over a million times more data than traditional devices like hard-drives, they can take on any shape, and they have a half-life of thousands of years (which means the information would never degrade after a few thousand years!). With the world’s data growing at an exponential rate and the matching need to have bigger storage space in all of our devices, there is a need to explore using DNA for long-term storage purposes.

The ETH Zurich researchers developed a storage architecture using DNA, which they termed “DNA-of-things” (DoT), where they fused DNA into everyday objects. First, they encapsulated the DNA in silica nanoparticles, which protects the DNA from any environmental stresses and prolongs the half-life of the DNA. Next, they mixed these nanoparticles with the material that will be used to create the object of interest, and the object was then made with either three-dimensional (3D) printing or other casting techniques. They tested their DoT technology by 3D-printing a bunny embedded with instructions for making the bunny itself. In order to retrieve the stored information, they cut off a tiny bit of the bunny, sequenced the extracted DNA, and retrieved a file that can be processed in just a few minutes on a laptop into instructions for the 3D-printing of the bunny. They were also able to use this extracted DNA to make more generations of the bunny, further proving the usefulness of this technology for a very long-term storage. 

Other than sounding like a futuristic science-fiction concept, what exactly is this DoT technology useful for? An immediate application would be for the field of 3D medical or dental implants. Since each implant is unique to the patient, the design of the implant as well as other important medical information on the patient can be stored inside the implant using DoT. This will give patients a long-term storage of their medical information, since traditional electronic medical records are only kept for 5-10 years. Another application of DoT can be for information steganography, a practice of concealing information. Certain information can be hidden in an unassuming object, and this may be important for national security purposes.

However, in order for DoT technology to be used widely, DNA sequencing technology would need to be cheaper and more accessible, and DNA synthesis would also need to be less expensive. The authors believe that this might be possible in the future, and that soon, we will be able to store our entire PhD thesis inside our favorite toy to be passed on to our children for generations. For now, we will have to stick with thumb drives.

Managing Correspondent: Wei Li

News Article: These Plastic Bunnies Got a DNA Upgrade. Next up, the World? Wired.

Storing data in everyday objects. Science Daily.

Original Article: A DNA-of-things storage architecture to create materials with embedded memory. Nature.

Video illustrating the DoT architecture concept: Storing data in everyday objects. YouTube.

Image Credit: ETH Zurich.

One thought on “Artificial DNA can replace your thumb drive

  1. As with any technology which allows concealed labelling, one question of interest is who has the ability to label it and to access it? If the police can identify the owner of a stolen bunny, that’s one thing. If they can identify the owner of a bunny which a demonstrator threw at a policeman, that’s something slightly different. If printer ink, paper and printers have a factory installed code, traceable via distributor to the end purchaser’s credit card, we had all better write our anonymous letters of complaint in pencil…unless they can do it with graphite too? Of course, printers and ink cartridges may already have such codes, just not stored in DNA. It’s a bit worrying to think my cuddly toy might be loaded with terabytes of data by some humourist at the toy factory. What would my legal liability be if my teddy bear turned out to be full of child porn? (Future legislators, you read it here first).
    In short, like all tech, what matters is how it’s used.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *