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Scientists have developed a method for storing DNA data in 3D-printed objects

Updated: Jan 7

DNA of Things - A new DNA data storage method allows storing assembly and operating instructions in the same way as in living beings: in DNA molecules.

A new way of storing data in everyday objects has been developed by researchers based at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, as well as in Israel and the US; a new form of DNA digital data storage. This new DNA data storage method is relatively easy to apply in all kinds of objects, from plastic rabbits to optical lenses.

Swiss and Israeli researchers have applied a synthetic DNA storage architecture to a 3D-printed plastic rabbit. The storage contains instructions for 3D printing of exactly the same plastic rabbit. Thus, the synthetic DNA that is used to store the print instructions fulfils in a sense the same role as the DNA of living beings.

The study describing the newly developed DNA data storage technology was published in Nature Biotechnology.

How does DNA data storage work?

The researchers used a technique in which information is stored in synthetic DNA molecules. Information is stored on hard disks and USB sticks in the form of ones and zeros. For DNA storage, the combinations 00, 01, 10 and 11 are translated into the four so-called nucleobases that make up DNA: C, G, A and T.

The researchers then embedded these synthetic DNA molecules in small particles of silica (about 160 nanometres in size) to protect it. A single hair is about five hundred times thicker.

Because they are so small, these glass nanobeads can be easily embedded in large quantities in other materials without affecting their properties, the researchers write. For example, they embedded them into plastic threads with which they printed a small 3D Stanford bunny.

How does the DNA storage technology works? The 3D plastic rabbit contains DNA molecules in which its print instructions are encoded.

From the ear of this rabbit they then cut off a piece of 10 milligrams. This contained several nanobeads with print instructions. By reading out this DNA with a so-called sequence reaction, they were able to print the same model of rabbit, again with DNA instructions.

They repeated the procedure until they had made the great-great-grandchild of the first rabbit.

What is the storage capacity of DNA?

It is possible to store large amounts of data in DNA. A single gram of DNA can contain 215,000 terabytes of information.

According to Yaniv Erlich, an Israeli computer scientist who developed the method that theoretically makes it possible to store 215,000 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA, all other known forms of storage have a fixed geometry: a hard drive has to look like a hard drive, a CD like a CD. The form can't be changed without losing information. DNA is currently the only data storage medium that can also exist as a liquid, which allows us to process it into objects of any shape, says Erlich.

Applications of DNA data storage technology

Another application of this data storage technique is hiding information. The researchers showed this by storing a 1.4 megabyte film in the glass DNA nanobeads.

Researchers used the newly developed DNA data storage technology to store a short film in glass beads, which they then embedded into the lenses of ordinary glasses. Theoretically, it should be possible to conceal the glass beads in any plastic objects that do not reach extremely high temperatures during manufacturing process.

According to the researchers, if during the manufacturing process the material will reach temperature well over 120 degrees Celsius, the DNA molecules, even in the protective beads will no longer remain intact. So, the plastic used to make 3D prints must have a sufficiently low melting point, such as epoxides, polyester, polyurethane and silicone.

The future of DNA data storage technology

The newly developed DNA storage technology makes it is possible integrate 3D print instructions into an object, so that after decades or even centuries it will be possible to obtain those instructions directly from the object itself, says Robert Grass, professor at ETH Zurich.

For example, you can store important information about building materials, paint or medicines in the material itself or in the packaging. This always makes it possible, for example, to assess its quality.

At the moment the DNA data storage technology is still relatively expensive. To process and read a 3D-printing file like the one stored in the plastic rabbit's DNA costs around 2,000 USD. However, it's only a matter of time before the DNA data storage technology will become more accessible.