Plastic rabbits can be "cloned" from their embedded synthetic DNA
It’s a weird thought, but any stray eyelash or skin flake you leave behind contains your entire “blueprint” in the form of DNA – and now, researchers from ETH Zurich have done the same for inanimate objects. The team created 3D rabbit models embedded with synthetic DNA that contained their own blueprints, allowing them to print copies by clipping small pieces off the original.
As with many things, nature has a far better system for storing information than anything humans have come up with. DNA is so dense that a single gram of it can hold 215 petabytes (or 215 million GB) of data. Better still, under the right conditions it can survive for millions of years.
It’s no surprise then that scientists have been trying to mimic DNA as an information storage technology. Geneticist George Church crammed 70 billion copies of his book onto DNA, a Harvard team stored a short video on the DNA of bacteria as a kind of living hard drive, and massive fans of Massive Attack could buy the classic album Mezzanine in the form of cans of DNA-enriched spray paint.
For the new study, the ETH Zurich team set out to create what they call a “DNA of Things” storage system. They tested it out using a computer graphics model called the Stanford Bunny. The team first encoded the blueprints for the bunny into DNA molecules, which were then placed inside silica beads for protection, and finally those were embedded into a thermoplastic polymer.
This was then used to 3D print the same model, meaning that just like living rabbits, these plastic bunnies contained their own DNA instructions. To take it a step further, the team then went on to “clone” the rabbits by shaving off a tiny piece of plastic, decoding the DNA inside and using that to print a new bunny.
Repeating this process, the team went down five generations and found no loss of information occurred. The fourth and fifth generations were done nine months apart, and the DNA was still just as readable as it had been on day one.
In a second experiment, the team tested how well the technique would scale up. The bunny blueprint was a mere 45 kB in size, so for the next job they tried a 1.4 MB video. This was stored inside plexiglass that was used to make a pair of reading glasses. And sure enough, the video could be retrieved from just a small sliver of the plexiglass.
As cool as this proof-of-concept is, it’s a little tricky to predict exactly what practical applications it might have. The team suggests it could be used to hide data inside everyday objects for those of us with secret spy business, or to store a person’s health records inside a medical implant. It may even enable self-replicating machines.
The research was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Source: ETH Zurich