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DNA of Things: researchers embed DNA into 3D printed objects

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A research team based out of ETH Zurich has developed a way to store DNA-like information inside 3D printed objects. The novel approach could allow people to reproduce 3D printed objects without any external digital information, such as original CAD files.

The innovative technology, dubbed the DNA of Things, was pioneered by Robert Grass, a professor in ETH Zurich’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, and Yaniv Erlich, an Israeli computer scientist. The pair combined their individual research projects to create the 3D printed, DNA-embedded objects.

As Grass explained: “With this method, we can integrate 3D printing instructions into an object, so that after decades or even centuries, it will be possible to obtain those instructions directly from the object itself.”

As mentioned, the DNA of Things technology draws some work conducted by both researchers. Grass, for his part, developed a method for identifying products with a DNA barcode embedded inside tiny glass beads. The nanobead barcode technology, which has been commercialized by ETH spinoff Haelixa, can be used to identify high-quality food products or to trace geological tests.

Erlich, for his part, pioneered a way to store incredible amounts of data in DNA. The method is theoretically capable of storing 215,000 terabytes of data inside a single gram of DNA. By combining the two inventions, Erlich and Grass have come up with a new type of data storage, one that would allow objects to contain information about their creation.

The white rabbit

To demonstrate the DNA of Things technology, the researchers 3D printed a plastic rabbit that contains roughly 100 kilobytes worth of information about how to 3D print the part. The printing instructions were integrated by embedding tiny DNA-containing glass beads into the printed structure.

Using the 3D printed rabbit, the research duo then extracted the information and used it to 3D print a new one. They ended up making five identical 3D printed rabbits based off of the DNA of the original.

“All 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,” Erlich said. “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.”

Concealing information

The DNA of Things technology has a number of applications that go beyond simple reproduction. For instance, the research team says it can be used to conceal information inside of everyday objects.

DNA of Things 3D printed objects
(Photo: ETH Zurich | Jonathan Venetz)

The glasses you see in the photo? They contain a short film (1.4 megabytes) about a secret archive from the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII. The information was printed into the lenses. “It would be no problem to take a pair of glasses like this through airport security and thus transport information from one place to another undetected,” Elrich said.

The unique technology could also be used to mark and identify things like medication or construction materials. Data about the medication’s quality could be stored directly inside of it, enabling supervisory authorities to conduct quality control tests directly on the product. In construction, the technology could be valuable in telling future construction workers what products were used in a building.

Today, the DNA of Things method is still too costly to be broadly applied, but the research team says that the cost of producing the DNA-embedded objects will decrease (per unit) the larger batches are made—because the bulk of the cost is associated with the DNA synthesis.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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