Researchers from ETH Zurich have devised a novel method for long-term, error-free storage of information on glass encapsulated segments of DNA.

When they say “long term”, they mean over a million years and “error-free” means all the gaps and false information in the encoded data that arises through chemical degradation and mistakes in DNA sequencing can be corrected using a specific algorithm.

Fossilised bones have been found with genetic material that was somehow encapsulated and remained intact even after thousands of years, to be isolated and analysed.

Robert Grass, a lecturer at ETH Zurich’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, who is leading the project, explains : “Similar to these bones, we wanted to protect the information-bearing DNA with a synthetic ‘fossil’ shell.”

Grass and his team encapsulated the DNA in silica spheres of diameter of roughly 150 nanometres. To bring about degradation that would mimic the natural process that occurs over aeons, researchers stored it at a temperature of between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius for up to a month.

“The DNA encapsulated in the glass shell turned out to be particularly robust. Through the use of a fluoride solution, it could be easily separated from the silica glass, and the information read from it,” explains an article published by ETH Zurich announcing the news.

In order to correct the errors that might have crept in due to physical degradation, Reinhard Heckel from ETH Zurich’s Communication Technology Laboratory developed an algorithm based on the Reed-Solomon Codes, similar to those that are used in the transmission of data over long distances.

The data on this ‘Synthetic Fossil’ can survive over a million years as compared to the meagre 500 on a micro-film. Grass notes that the documents in Unesco’s Memory of the World Programme, and Wikipedia, for instance could be stored through his technology.

“Many entries are described in detail, others less so. This probably provides a good overview of what our society knows, what occupies it and to what extent.”


(Image credit: ἀλέξ, via Flickr)

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