Synthetic DNA fossils have been created but what can we expect from this new tool?
Protocols are for researchers what cookbooks are for Chefs: for some, scratchy notes; for others, the Bible. Just like a Chef who expects to end up with a great desert when following his favorite Creme Brulee recipe, scientists perform protocols with particular aims in mind. Except for… – what can a protocol for making synthetic DNA fossils be used for?
Scientists from ETH Zurich, – a leading international university for technology and natural sciences in Switzerland – have developed a way to store DNA inside tiny glass spheres reported in the current issue of the technical journal Nature Protocols. In this way, the DNA molecules are protected over extended periods of time, just like it would be if stored as part of an ancient fossil. The most important aspect of their technology is that the DNA can be recovered in its intact form and the information it contains can be easily “read”.
With this protocol, scientists will be able not only to store as much genetic information as required in these spheres (these are nanoparticles, so storage space is not a problem), but also to have that information available when needed. The relevance of this method is undeniable: important DNA will be protected from temperature and chemicals indefinitely and in a reversible way. But what can be the use of such supreme preservation is the question everyone is asking.
If you are thinking Jurassic Park, chances are that you are not alone. To preserve the DNA of each and every species alive may be one good application, but the investment would be gigantic and the urgency to access such a database would not arise, hopefully for all of us, for hundreds or millions of years. However, for endangered species (a comprehensive list compiled by WWF can be found here), this could be a way of keeping the genetic information of as many individuals as possible in a safe place in the hope that the future would bring astonishing technological advances in cell and organism engineering. Depending on the sensibilities of the societies in the future, particular life forms once lost could be brought to life using the DNA in the spheres and the ultimate interspecies cloning techniques. In the not so extreme case of endangered species with few individuals left alive, genetic diversity could be restored using genetic “mingling” of the DNA of those individuals and the DNA in the spheres. The list of Jurassic Park-like applications that can be envisioned is for sure endless, but believe it or not, no such uses were suggested by the authors of the protocol. Instead, the applications favored are of a very different kind.
Whereas the authors describe DNA as “nature’s method of storing information”, it has recently been established as a powerful platform for storing information that goes beyond naturally encoded sequences. DNA molecules can now be safe depositories of books, songs and images and their capacity outreaches by several orders of magnitude that of “classical” electronic platforms. However, the stability of the stored information remains a concern. To overcome that problem, the authors foresee the use of their protocol for the safe and stable encapsulation of all kinds of information, making these DNA fossils the first choice for data storage. Transferring data from one place to another, as well as tagging large amounts of individual entities, are other applications pout forward by the authors due to the reversibility of the encrypting technique. Decoding the synthetic DNA fossils would be much easier than extracting the genetic sequences from amber-preserved Jurassic creatures.