Unlike living beings, inanimate objects do not have the ability to reproduce. This small plastic rabbit, however, contains all the instructions necessary to reprint it, stored in strands of DNA inside the filaments. Tomorrow, any everyday object, such as a water bottle, a shirt button or eyeglass lenses, will be able to conceal secret information.
This little rabbit printed in 3D looks like an ordinary plastic toy. Yet it has the ability to reproduce itself. More precisely, it contains the instructions for its manufacture stored in the form of DNA. This was achieved through the collaboration between two teams: Israeli computer scientist Yaniv Erlich, a pioneer in DNA storage, and Robert Grass, Professor of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich, who invented glass nanofibres that can contain this DNA.
DNA storage: storing data for millions of years
DNA storage is a Holy Grail that has been stirring the scientific world for years. It consists of converting computer bits 0 or 1 to the nitrogenous DNA bases A, C, G and T — adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. Theoretically, this method can store a billion gigabytes of data in as little as 1 mm3 – the world’s entire annual computer output in the trunk of a car. More importantly, it can be stored virtually forever, where the life span of a CD is no more than 30 years. In March 2018, Microsoft and the University of Washington announced that they had encoded 200 MB of data on DNA strands, and in 2019, the start-up Catalog succeeded in storing the 16 GB of the English version of Wikipedia on DNA.
The problem is that DNA is also very fragile. High temperatures, a change in pH or exposure to UV rays can damage the molecule irretrievably. In other words, putting it through the mill of a 3D printer would normally be fatal. This is where Robert Grass’ invention comes in: he has developed positively charged glass nanofibres, which bundle together with the negatively charged DNA strands to form a protective envelope. All that remained was to integrate these nanofibres into the plastic filaments and print the rabbit.
The rabbit reproduces from a piece of ear
It contains billions of nanofibres, each containing about 100 bytes of data about its shape, contours or printing speed. The rabbit not only contains the information to replicate itself, but it is also passed on from generation to generation, by taking a small piece of rabbit ear to reprint a new one. “We were able to repeat the process five times in a row, creating the great-great-great-grandson of the moose rabbit,” smiles Erlich.
Stronger than James Bond: Films Hidden in Glasses
Beyond 3D printing, this technique will make it possible to hide information in any everyday object, say the researchers whose work has been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology. Robert Grass and his colleagues have thus encoded a small 1.4 MB film in simple glasses lenses. A traceability system for construction parts, food products, anti-counterfeiting markings or medical devices containing health information can also be envisaged. In 2012, Grass created a start-up called Haelixa to exploit its invention. Any material that does not require excessive heating is theoretically suitable for nanofiber encapsulation.
However, the 3D rabbit is not likely to replace your USB key in the near future. The method is currently relatively long and laborious.
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