Future Tech

In homage to Jurassic Park, researchers store DNA in amber-like polymer

Tan KW
Publish date: Tue, 18 Jun 2024, 05:30 AM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

Boffins at MIT have come up with an amber-like polymer that can be used to preserve DNA, which could allow it to be used for long term storage of information, such as genomes or digital data.

The researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they were inspired by the movie Jurassic Park, in which DNA is extracted from creatures preserved in amber and used to create a population of long-extinct dinosaurs.

However, they were looking for something a bit more convenient than amber. The polymer they came up with can be used to store DNA sequences encoding data such as the theme music from Jurassic Park, as well as an entire human genome, they claim, while the DNA can easily be removed from the polymer without damaging it.

But as with other DNA storage methods, actually storing the data takes several hours and retrieving it is also slow and cumbersome.

DNA has been explored as a way of storing information for some time, as it potentially offers high storage density; in theory, a coffee mug full of DNA could store all of the world’s data, MIT claims. And depending how it is stored, it could have much greater longevity than many of today's archive technologies.

Current methods for storing DNA typically require freezing, so are impractical because of the energy required, while MIT’s newly developed polymer can store DNA at room temperature while also protecting it from damage caused by heat or water, according to a report in MIT News.

"Freezing DNA is the number one way to preserve it, but it’s very expensive, and it's not scalable," James Banal, a former MIT postdoc and one of the researchers involved, is quoted as saying. "I think our new preservation method is going to be a technology that may drive the future of storing digital information on DNA."

A research paper was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The polymer the researchers came up with is based on styrene, a widely used synthetic chemical, plus a cross-linker, which together form cross-linked polystyrene. This is a type of polymer known as a degradable thermoset, made up of polymers that form a solid when heated, and where the links can be easily broken, allowing the polymer to be degraded in a controlled way.

In a masterpiece of contrived naming so beloved of scientists, the researchers decided to call their method of preserving the DNA in the polymer T-REX, short for Thermoset-REinforced Xeropreservation.

One drawback is that the process of embedding DNA into the polymer network takes several hours, but that could become shorter "with further optimization," according to the researchers.

Releasing the DNA again involves adding a substance called cysteamine, which disrupts the bonds holding the polystyrene thermoset together. A detergent called SDS is then required to remove the DNA from the polystyrene without damaging it.

Using this method, the MIT researchers claim they were able to store DNA encoding the Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, the MIT logo, and the theme music from the dinosaur movie. After storage and removal, the DNA was sequenced and no errors found, critical if the polymer is to be used for data storage.

Banal and his postdoc advisor, Mark Bathe, an MIT professor of biological engineering, have formed a company called Cache DNA to working on further developing DNA storage technology. They say they are working on ways to streamline the process of making the polymers and forming them into capsules for long term storage.

Previous efforts at making DNA storage from the Microsoft Research team and the University of Washington saw boffins storing a 200 MB archive in a piece of DNA the size of a couple of grains of sugar.

More recently, a French startup called Biomemory was offering to store 1 kilobyte in DNA for €1,000 ($1,071) on special DNA Cards, while Seagate was also said to be developing gumstick card-sized DNA storage readers and writers back in 2022. ®



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