DNA of Things: Using Biology to Transmit Information

Note to readers: in this series I publish short articles on the things in science that I find interesting. Quite simple. I intend to publish an article every week to (a) stay up to date with interesting science and (b) practice writing and communicating. This is my first article and I am sure there are many mistakes, if you have any feedback or suggestions please comment and I would love to have a chat. This is simply an attempt to educate myself and improve my writing. I hope you enjoy

In December 1959 Richard Feynman presented a lecture called “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. This lecture is not as famous or renown as the likes of The Law of Gravitation but, in the context of molecular biology, it showed remarkable foresight. Feynman proposed the idea of using nanotechnology to store large amounts of information, for example, the contents of every book in the University of Brazil library on the head of a pin so that “when the University of Brazil finds their library is burnt, we can send them every copy from a pin”, (with very cheap postage). Little did he know but in 2018 the Brazilian National Museum would burn down, if only there was a pin to restore the works.

Scientists are edging closer to Feynman’s idea but not using physics, using biology. DNA to be exact. In 1988 artist Joe Davis worked with researchers from Harvard to store the coordinates for the ancient Germanic rune “Microvenus” in a strand of DNA. And in 2019 Julian Koch and his team created DNA-of-Things (DoT) to store a 1.4MB video in a DNA strand in plexiglass.

So, this begs the question, how can you store information in DNA and why should we do this?

DNA is the universal storage device, just one gram of DNA contains 215 million gigabytes of data. To put it in context, the latest, top of the range Apple laptop can store 8 000 gigabytes. So, due to the immense storage power of DNA it makes sense savvy scientists would look at storing more than the blueprint of life. The process itself is quite simple and has been made more accessible and cheaper due to reduced cost of synthesising DNA.

The first step is to convert the information into binary, a string of 0s and 1s for each letter of the alphabet.

The second step is to convert the binary into a DNA sequence using the DNA Fountain software. DNA is made up of 4 bases – adenosine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and threonine (T) – and can be synthesised in a lab.

The third step is to embed that strand of DNA into an object that will protect it and ensure longevity.

Finally, decode the information by sequencing the strand of preserved DNA. DNA sequencing is a common protocol used in many molecular biology labs and can be as cheap as $4 USD a sample.

Koch’s team stored the information to make a Stanford Bunny in a 3D printed version of the bunny. They encased the DNA in silica beads and use the beads mixed with plastic to print a 3D rabbit. Thus, the bunny carried the information to build itself, similar to a biological abiotic organism.

How can this technology be used?

Often stories like these look great on paper and in the lab but their implications for day to day life are limited. However, this technology looks great in the lab and has serious implications in the wider world. It won’t be hyperbolic to say that this technology has the ability to change information processing and distribution.

For example: imagine you are a pharmacist and you have a new shipment of medication (or a covid vaccine). You are concerned about supply chain failures and want to ensure the medication you received is the original real medication, not counterfeit. The label and barcode are correct, but you know those can be hacked and changed. How can you know this is the true correctly synthesised medication? With this DoT technology, a statement of originality can be coded in DNA which is encased in silica beads in the plastic bottle. You can extract the beads, sequence the DNA, and verify the medication’s origin. A similar approach has been proposed using Blockchain technology.

Whilst many of us won’t encounter this situation in our daily lives and work, the implications of DoT can be felt second hand.

However, there are some challenges

The first is accessibility, this process is expensive and requires specialised equipment to both create the DNA and encode it after the fact. This is not accessible to everyone, and the people that need this technology the most will probably be left out.

Secondly, as Paul Katzoff says to TECHNEWSWORLD there is a major concern about security. You could smuggle information across borders and under the nose of governments in DNA completely disregarding established government regulations such as GDPR. Furthermore, a system cannot be privacy-compliant unless you have proof that the data and information can be destroyed. Whilst DNA can be destroyed, it will be a lot harder to track than a computer code.

I love this story because it combines different disciplines (molecular biology, physics, engineering, and software) and shows the potential of DNA and molecular biology. The area of molecular biology has come leaps and bounds in the last few decades with the advent of synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Undergraduate students are partaking in genetic engineering of bacteria and finding new ways to use DNA code to build organisms. Whilst a huge part of biology is still about understanding and unravelling all the pathways and complexities of a human organism. A new field is emerging, that of combining biology with engineering to build new systems and tools using DNA and RNA. DNA storage is just the beginning and I am excited to see where it goes from here.

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