ETH Zurich Eyes DNA of Things

December 10, 2019

A re­search team with mem­bers from ETH Zurich has dis­covered a new method for turn­ing nearly any ob­ject into a data stor­age unit. This makes it pos­sible to save ex­tens­ive data in, say, shirt but­tons, wa­ter bottles or even the lenses of glasses, and then re­trieve it years later. The tech­nique also al­lows users to hide in­form­a­tion and store it for later gen­er­a­tions. It uses DNA as the stor­age me­dium.

A 3D-​printed plastic rab­bit. The plastic con­tains DNA mo­lecules in which the print­ing in­struc­tions have been en­coded.

Liv­ing be­ings con­tain their own as­sembly and op­er­at­ing in­struc­tions in the form of DNA. That’s not the case with in­an­im­ate ob­jects: any­one wish­ing to 3D print an ob­ject also re­quires a set of in­struc­tions. If they then choose to print that same ob­ject again years later, they need ac­cess to the ori­ginal di­gital in­form­a­tion. The ob­ject it­self does not store the print­ing in­struc­tions.

Re­search­ers at ETH Zurich have now col­lab­or­ated with an Is­raeli sci­ent­ist to de­velop a means of stor­ing ex­tens­ive in­form­a­tion in al­most any ob­ject. “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,” ex­plains Robert Grass, Pro­fessor at the De­part­ment of Chem­istry and Ap­plied Bios­ciences. The way of stor­ing this in­form­a­tion is the same as for liv­ing things: in DNA mo­lecules.

“DNA of Things”

Sev­eral de­vel­op­ments of the past few years have made this ad­vance pos­sible. One of them is Grass’s method for mark­ing products with a DNA “bar­code” em­bed­ded in min­is­cule glass beads. These nan­o­beads have vari­ous uses; for ex­ample, as tracers for geo­lo­gical tests, or as mark­ers for high-​quality food­stuffs, thus dis­tin­guish­ing them from coun­ter­feits. The bar­code is re­l­at­ively short: just a 100-​bit code (100 places filled with “0”s or “1”s). This tech­no­logy has now been com­mer­cial­ised by ETH spin-​off Haelixa.

At the same time, it has be­come pos­sible to store enorm­ous data volumes in DNA. Grass’s col­league Yaniv Er­lich, an Is­raeli com­puter sci­ent­ist with whom he is now col­lab­or­at­ing, de­veloped a method that the­or­et­ic­ally makes it pos­sible to store 215,000 tera­bytes of data in a single gram of DNA. And Grass him­self was able to store an en­tire mu­sic al­bum in DNA – the equi­val­ent of 15 mega­bytes of data.

The two sci­ent­ists have now wed­ded these in­ven­tions into a new form of data stor­age, as they re­port in the journal Nature Bi­o­tech­no­logy. They call the stor­age form “DNA of Things”, a takeoff on the In­ter­net of Things, in which ob­jects are con­nec­ted with in­form­a­tion via the in­ter­net.

Com­par­able to bio­logy

As a use case, the re­search­ers 3D prin­ted a rab­bit out of plastic, which con­tains the in­struc­tions (about 100 kilo­bytes’ worth of data) for print­ing the ob­ject. The re­search­ers achieved this by adding tiny glass beads con­tain­ing DNA to the plastic. “Just like real rab­bits, our rab­bit also car­ries its own blue­print,” Grass says.

And just like in bio­logy, this new tech­no­lo­gical method re­tains the in­form­a­tion over sev­eral gen­er­a­tions – a fea­ture the sci­ent­ists demon­strated by re­triev­ing the print­ing in­struc­tions from a small part of the rab­bit and us­ing them to print a whole new one. They were able to re­peat this pro­cess five times, es­sen­tially cre­at­ing the “great-​great-great-grandchild” of the ori­ginal rab­bit.

“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. You can’t change the form without los­ing in­form­a­tion,” Er­lich says. “DNA is cur­rently the only data stor­age me­dium that can also ex­ist as a li­quid, which al­lows us to in­sert it into ob­jects of any shape.”

Hid­ing in­form­a­tion

A fur­ther ap­plic­a­tion of the tech­no­logy would be to con­ceal in­form­a­tion in every­day ob­jects, a tech­nique ex­perts refer to as stegano­graphy. To show­case this ap­plic­a­tion, the sci­ent­ists turned to his­tory: among the scant doc­u­ments that at­test to life in the Warsaw Ghetto dur­ing World War II is a secret archive, which was as­sembled by a Jew­ish his­tor­ian and ghetto res­id­ent at that time and hid­den from Hitler’s troops in milk cans. Today, this archive is lis­ted on UN­ESCO’s Memory of the World Re­gister.

Grass, Er­lich and their col­leagues used the tech­no­logy to store a short film about this archive (1.4 mega­bytes) in glass beads, which they then poured into the lenses of or­din­ary glasses. “It would be no prob­lem to take a pair of glasses like this through air­port se­cur­ity and thus trans­port in­form­a­tion from one place to an­other un­detec­ted,” Er­lich says. In the­ory, it should be pos­sible to hide the glass beads in any plastic ob­jects that do not reach too high a tem­per­at­ure dur­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cess. Such plastics in­clude ep­ox­ides, poly­es­ter, poly­ureth­ane and sil­ic­one.

Mark­ing med­ic­a­tions and con­struc­tion ma­ter­i­als

Fur­ther­more, this tech­no­logy could be used to mark med­ic­a­tions or con­struc­tion ma­ter­i­als such as ad­hes­ives or paints. In­form­a­tion about their qual­ity could be stored dir­ectly in the med­ic­a­tion or ma­ter­ial it­self, Grass ex­plains. This means med­ical su­per­vis­ory au­thor­it­ies could read test res­ults from pro­duc­tion qual­ity con­trol dir­ectly from the product. And in build­ings, for ex­ample, work­ers do­ing renov­a­tions can find out which products from which man­u­fac­tur­ers were used in the ori­ginal struc­ture.

At the mo­ment the method is still re­l­at­ively ex­pens­ive. Trans­lat­ing a 3D-​printing file like the one stored in the plastic rab­bit’s DNA costs around 2,000 Swiss francs, Grass says. A large sum of that goes to­wards syn­thes­ising the cor­res­pond­ing DNA mo­lecules. How­ever, the lar­ger the batch size of ob­jects, the lower the unit cost.

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