Scientists store DNA in fake amber (and no, we’re not bringing dinosaurs back to life with this, but it’s useful)

Scientists store DNA in fake amber (and no, we're not bringing dinosaurs back to life with this, but it's useful)

The T-REX method allows scientists to use DNA embedded in a special polymer to store captured or digital data – such as photos and music – over the long term.

Have you seen the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park? In it, scientists extract DNA from amber that is millions of years old and use it to revive extinct dinosaurs. Inspired in part by this film, researchers have now developed a glassy polymer that looks like amber. This polymer can be used for long-term storage of DNA, whether it is the complete human genome or digital files such as photographs.

Back to the beginning. DNA is a very stable molecule. Therefore, it is ideally suited for storing huge amounts of information, including digital data. In digital storage systems, text, images, and other information are encoded as a series of zeros and ones. The same information can be transferred into DNA using the four nucleotides A, T, G, and C that make up the genetic code. For example, G and C can be used to represent 0, while A and T represent 1. What’s special about DNA is that it is able to store digital information at a very high density. In theory, a coffee mug full of DNA could contain all the data in the world.

Most current methods of storing DNA require only very low temperatures. This requires a lot of energy and is impractical in many parts of the world. “The main way to preserve DNA is to freeze it,” explains researcher James Bagnall. “But this is very expensive and also not scalable.” That’s why researchers started looking for a new storage method. And they found that, thanks in part to the movie Jurassic Park.

Storage system
In 2021, Banal and his colleagues have already devised a way to store DNA in silica particles, which can be labeled with markers to reveal their contents. A disadvantage of this storage system is that it takes several days to incorporate the DNA into the silica particles. In addition, the process of extracting DNA from molecules requires the use of hydrogen fluoride, which can be dangerous for people working with DNA. For this reason, researchers began looking for alternative storage materials. Their idea was to use a type of polymer known as pyrolysis. These polymers harden when heated and contain brittle bonds that can be easily broken, causing the polymer to decompose in a controlled manner. “With these biodegradable thermosets, depending on the specific biodegradable compounds we use, we can selectively determine how we want them to decompose,” researcher Jeremiah Johnson said.

In this project, the researchers chose to make a thermosetting polymer of styrene and a cross-linker. Together, these materials form a type of amber-like polymer, which is fake amber. This polymer is very good at repelling water, which means it prevents moisture from getting in and damaging DNA. To make the polymer biodegradable, the researchers added monomers called thionolactone. It can be broken down by treating it with a substance called cysteamine. The researchers called their method T-REX (heat enhanced thermal preservation). The process of integrating DNA into the polymer network takes several hours, but researchers say this period can be shortened with further improvements.

Researchers at MIT have devised a way to encapsulate DNA in a thermoset polymer. After the DNA is incorporated into the polymer, it can be released again by treatment with cysteamine. Image: Prince et al. actually.

Human genes
Researchers have demonstrated that using these polymers, they can incorporate DNA of various lengths, ranging from tens of nucleotides to the entire human genome (more than 50,000 base pairs). They also managed to store DNA with Jurassic Park music encoded in it, among other things. Furthermore, they showed that DNA can be easily removed from the polymer without damaging it. This is an essential feature of any digital data storage system. Finally, the researchers demonstrated that the thermoset polymer can protect DNA from temperatures up to 75 degrees Celsius. They are currently working on ways to improve the production process of these polymers and form them into capsules for long-term storage.

the study Researchers have discovered that a new amber-like polymer is an effective storage system. It can effectively preserve DNA at room temperature while simultaneously protecting DNA molecules from heat or water damage. “I believe our new method of preservation could be a technology that could lead the future of digital information storage on DNA,” concludes Banal.

The researchers are currently continuing their work. They want to further develop their DNA storage technology. Their first application aims to store the human genome. They expect that these stored genomes will be analyzed further in the future, as better technologies are developed. “Why don’t we preserve the most complete version of the human genome forever?” Normal asks out loud. “In the next 10 or 20 years, as technology becomes more advanced than it is today, we can discover more. We are only at the beginning of our understanding of the genome and its relationship to disease.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top