Inspired by the movie Jurassic Park, a team of MIT researchers has developed a groundbreaking method to store DNA for extended periods using a glassy, amber-like polymer. This innovative approach allows for the preservation of DNA at room temperature, circumventing the need for energy-intensive freezing methods.

Traditional DNA storage methods require freezing temperatures, which consume substantial energy and are impractical in many regions. The new method developed by the MIT team stores DNA at room temperature, protecting it from damage caused by heat or moisture.

“I think our new preservation method is going to be a technology that may drive the future of storing digital information on DNA,” said James Banal, a chemistry professor at MIT and senior author of the study.

Due to its remarkable stability, DNA is an ideal medium for storing vast amounts of data, including digital information. Digital storage devices encode text, images, and other data as sequences of 0s and 1s, while DNA uses four nucleotides—A, T, G, and C—to encode the same information. For example, G and C might represent 0, and A and T might represent 1.

Researchers note that DNA offers a very high-density method of storing digital data; theoretically, the world’s data could be stored in a coffee cup filled with DNA. DNA is also stable and relatively easy to synthesize and sequence.

In 2021, Banal and MIT professor Mark Bathe created a method to store DNA in silica particles, leading to the spinout Cache DNA. However, this method required days to embed DNA and used hazardous hydrofluoric acid for removal.

Seeking alternatives, Banal collaborated with his MIT colleague Jeremiah Johnson to develop a storage material using degradable thermoset polymers. These polymers form a solid when heated and have cleavable links for controlled degradation.

The team created a hydrophobic, amber-like thermoset polymer from styrene and a cross-linker to protect DNA from moisture. To make it degradable, they copolymerized styrene with thionolactones, which can be cleaved by cysteamine.

Overcoming the hydrophobicity of styrene, the researchers identified three monomers that help dissolve and interact with DNA, forming spherical complexes. When heated, this solution turns into a glass-like block embedding the DNA. Their method, Thermoset-REinforced Xeropreservation (T-REX), embeds DNA in hours and potentially faster with optimization. To release the DNA, they add cysteamine to cleave the polymer, followed by SDS detergent to extract the DNA without damage.

The scientists demonstrated that their polymers could encapsulate DNA of different lengths, from tens of nucleotides to the full human genome (more than 50,000 base pairs). After storing and retrieving the DNA, sequencing confirmed no errors, a crucial feature for digital data storage systems. The thermoset polymer also protected DNA at temperatures up to 75°C (167°F).

The team is now focused on streamlining polymer production and forming them into capsules for long-term storage.

Cache DNA, founded by Banal, Bathe, and Johnson, is advancing DNA storage technology. They foresee initial applications in storing genomes for personalized medicine and potential future analyses as technology improves.

“Ten or twenty years from now, when technology has advanced way more than we could ever imagine today, we could learn more and more things. We’re still in the very infancy of understanding the genome and how it relates to disease,” said Banal.

By Impact Lab