A 3D-printed bunny could hold the key to long-term, abundant data storage.
Researchers from ETH Zurich and Israel encoded the blueprint for a computer graphic model and stored it in some DNA molecules. The team then 3D-printed a rabbit from the material. They were then able to take a sample from the model, decode the information and use it to create a new 3D printout. This was done over five generations with no data loss. Their experiment was documented in a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
The breakthrough could pave the way for a resilient, dense means of storing data for generations to come. The researchers note that their “DNA-of-Things,” or DoT, could store medical information in health implants, or create objects that hold their own blueprint. It could even be used for creating a machine that can replicate itself.
This could mean great things for the future of storage. Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, told Wired in June 2018 that DNA has “an information-storage density several orders of magnitude higher than any other known storage technology.” In measurable terms, it could mean storing every single film ever made on something more compact than a sugar cube, and with the potential to last up to 10,000 years.
DNA data storage: how a rabbit could hold the key
To demonstrate how their DNA storage system works, the team encoded a computer graphics model of the Stanford Bunny, a famous model regularly used in tests. This was encoded into a format that would be compatible with DNA. The resultant blueprint measured 45 kilobytes — not quite the multiple gigabytes taken up by a high-definition movie, but a start.
The data was then put into DNA molecules. They were then placed inside silica beads, embedded into a biodegradable thermal polyester. That material was then used to 3D print the bunny, meaning those silica beads contained the blueprint to make the object.
The scientists were then able to extract the data by clipping a portion of the object and decoding the DNA samples. This was done five times with no information loss, even when the team waited nine months between the fourth and fifth bunny to manufacture the sample.
Following the success of the bunny experiment, the team then tried encoding a 1.4 megabyte video about the Oneg Shabbat archive, which relates to the Warsaw Ghetto, a district of the Polish city where Nazi Germany forcibly resettled 40,000 Jews from 1940 through 1943.
The team believes that the findings could be used to build objects that contain the memory of themselves. That could be used to recreate an object by chipping away a bit and reading the encoded data. It could be used to embed details about houses or art installations, the researchers, explain, so future generations can retrieve the data and look back on it. All of this without depending on a single cloud server hosted somewhere.
DNA data storage is gradually taking baby steps forward, even with these small amounts of information. Microsoft announced in 2016 that it had stored 200 megabytes of data onto a single DNA strand, containing information like 100 books from the Project Gutenberg library. A team at Harvard University announced in 2017 that it had stored a GIF of a horse in bacterial DNA using the CRISPR-Cas9 system. Scientific American declared in July 2019 that DNA data storage is “closer than you think.”
It may look like a simple rabbit, but it could hold the key to storing information for generations.
DNA storage offers substantial information density and exceptional half-life. We devised a ‘DNA-of-things’ (DoT) storage architecture to produce materials with immutable memory. In a DoT framework, DNA molecules record the data. These molecules are then encapsulated in nanometer silica beads, which are fused into various materials that are used to print or cast objects in any shape. First, we applied DoT to three-dimensionally print a Stanford Bunny that contained a 45 kB digital DNA blueprint for its synthesis. We synthesized five generations of the bunny, each from the memory of the previous generation without additional DNA synthesis or degradation of information. To test the scalability of DoT, we stored a 1.4 MB video in DNA in plexiglass spectacle lenses and retrieved it by excising a tiny piece of the plexiglass and sequencing the embedded DNA. DoT could be applied to store electronic health records in medical implants, to hide data in everyday objects (steganography) and to manufacture objects containing their own blueprint. It may also facilitate the development of self-replicating machines.