Imagine if inanimate objects were like living organisms in the sense that they contained their own assembly and operating instructions in the form of DNA. You could sample the genetic code of chair and clone it, for example. It turns out, we are on the verge of doing just that. A team of scientists at ETH Zurich devised a ‘DNA-of-things’ (DoT) storage architecture to produce materials with immutable memory. This approach allows us to integrate the instructions for how to 3D print an object into the materials of the object itself. It's not as farfetched as it sounds!
Here's how it works. The 3D printing instructions are encoded as a strand of DNA. The DNA is stored in glass nanobeads which are fused into materials for printing or casting objects in any shape. The printed object now carries it's own instructions for producing another copy. You can then remove a piece of the object and retrieve these instructions to print another.
The team practiced this technique by printing a plastic rabbit. Their rabbit contained a 45 kB digital DNA blueprint for its synthesis. They successfully synthesized five generations of the rabbit, each from the memory of the previous generation without additional DNA synthesis or degradation of information. DoT has many other potential applications, including storing electronic health records in medical implants and hiding data in everyday objects. This breakthrough puts us in the beginning stages of building self-replicating machines.
Scientists have already been building on DNA as a new way of storing information for years. It has two advantages that set it apart from all other storage media. One, it is the most information dense stores of information available. The structure of DNA evolved almost exclusively for this advantage - it's helical structure allows it to be packed down as tight as possible. Also, 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. 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.
Their results were recently published in Nature Biotechnology.
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