New Method Can Turn Any Object Into Data Storage Unit

  • Researchers use DNA molecules to store information in everyday objects. 
  • The information can be retrieved decades or even centuries later. 
  • At the moment the technology is quite expensive. 

In today’s information age, the world’s data is growing at enormous rates. Existing devices (solid-state drive, hard drives, and magnetic tapes) to store these data will soon reach their physical limitations.

This is why scientists are trying to use DNA molecules as an architecture for long-term cold storage. It can take any shape and exhibit beyond exceptional density and endurance. In theory, a single gram of DNA can store 215 Petabytes of data for thousands of years.

Now, researchers at ETH Zurich (Switzerland) and Erlich Lab LLC (Israel) have developed a new way of storing a vast amount of information (using DNA molecules only) in everyday objects such as water bottles, shirt buttons, and even glass lenses. The information can be retrieved directly from the objects even after decades or centuries.

Previous studies, such as marking products with DNA ‘barcode’ and storing massive data volumes in DNA, have enabled researchers to build a new type of data storage named ‘DNA of Things’. The objects (storage units) are linked with information via the internet, hence the name.

How Did They Do It?

To create objects with immutable memory, researchers fused DNA molecules to a functional material. They encoded the data in DNA molecules in a way that is robust to errors.

They used the DNA Fountain encoding scheme to correct extreme dropout errors and retrieve data from minute quantities of material.

However, simply mixing the DNA with functional materials often leads to degraded DNA due to increased temperatures and hydrolysis stress during the preparation of the mixture.

This can be eliminated by encapsulating the DNA in silica nanoparticle. The silica particle-encapsulated DNA makes it easier to mix DNA with the embedding material, as well as increases the half-life of DNA molecules.

Reference: Nature Biotechnology | DOI:10.1038/s41587-019-0356-z | ETH Zurich 

These DNA molecules can be mixed with various materials and shaped via either 3D printing or casting techniques.

The research team 3D printed a rabbit out of plastic to demonstrated the new method. The rabbit contains 100 Kilobytes of data — the instruction for printing the rabbit. This means the object carries its own blueprint just like real rabbits.

Turn Any Object Into Data Storage UnitA 3D-printed plastic rabbit that contains 100 KB of data in the form of DNA molecules | Credit: ETH Zurich / Julian Koch

They also retrieved the data (printing instructions) from a small piece of the rabbit and used it to 3D print a whole new one. They repeated the process 5 times, creating the ‘great-great-great grandchild’ of the first rabbit.

Applications

The technology could be used to hide secret information within an ordinary material, a technique called steganography. Researchers demonstrated it by storing a short film (1.4 megabytes) into the lenses of conventional glasses. One can take these glasses through airport security undetected.

Theoretically, it’s possible to conceal information in all plastic objects (including silicone, polyurethane, polyester, and epoxides) as long as they do not reach extremely high temperatures during the manufacturing process.

It is useful in applications where blueprint level information is required to be accessible, either in a mass-manufactured object or in a personalized item. In dental implants, for example, each structure is unique and customized only for a particular patient.

A more futuristic application of this technology would be in the area of self-replicating devices. The technique has enough replicating capability to create storage material for an unlimited supply of objects.

Read: Microsoft Has Built A Completely Automated DNA Data Storage

The technology is quite expensive: translating a single 3D-print file costs more than $2,000. However, the cost of the unit decreases as the batch size of the object increases.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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