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Jurassic Park Meets Reality: Scientists Preserve DNA in Amber-Like Polymer

Inspired by the movie Jurassic Park, MIT researchers have developed a revolutionary method for storing DNA at room temperature using a glassy, amber-like polymer. This breakthrough could transform how we preserve genetic information and digital data for generations to come.

Jurassic Park Meets Reality: Scientists Preserve DNA in Amber-Like Polymer

In the iconic film “Jurassic Park,” scientists extract dinosaur DNA preserved in amber, bringing these prehistoric creatures back to life. While reviving dinosaurs remains in the realm of fiction, researchers at MIT have drawn inspiration from the movie to develop a groundbreaking method for storing DNA. Their innovation involves a glassy, amber-like polymer capable of preserving DNA, from entire human genomes to digital files like photos, for extended periods.

Current DNA storage methods often rely on freezing temperatures, demanding significant energy consumption and posing logistical challenges in many parts of the world. This new amber-like polymer, however, allows for room-temperature DNA storage, safeguarding the delicate molecules from heat and water damage.

The MIT team successfully demonstrated the polymer’s efficacy by storing DNA sequences encoding the “Jurassic Park” theme music and a complete human genome. They also proved that the DNA could be easily extracted from the polymer without compromising its integrity.

Freezing DNA is the gold standard for preservation, but it’s costly and not scalable,

explains James Banal, a former MIT postdoc.

Our new preservation method has the potential to revolutionize the future of storing digital information on DNA.

Published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the study was led by Banal, Jeremiah Johnson (the A. Thomas Geurtin Professor of Chemistry at MIT), former MIT postdoc Elizabeth Prince, and MIT postdoc Ho Fung Cheng.

DNA’s inherent stability makes it ideal for storing vast amounts of information, including digital data. Digital systems encode data as 0s and 1s, while DNA utilizes its four nucleotides (A, T, G, and C) for the same purpose. For instance, G and C could represent 0, while A and T represent 1.

This approach allows for incredibly dense data storage: theoretically, a coffee mug filled with DNA could hold the entirety of the world’s data. DNA’s stability and ease of synthesis and sequencing further enhance its appeal for this purpose.

This isn’t Banal’s first foray into DNA storage. In 2021, he and MIT professor Mark Bathe developed a method using silica particles, leading to the spinout company Cache DNA.

However, this method had drawbacks, including a multi-day embedding process and the use of hazardous hydrofluoric acid for DNA removal. Seeking alternatives, Banal collaborated with Johnson’s lab, focusing on degradable thermoset polymers. These polymers solidify when heated and incorporate cleavable links for controlled degradation.

“By choosing specific cleavable bonds, we can control how these deconstructable thermosets degrade,” explains Johnson.

The team opted for a thermoset made from styrene and a cross-linker, resulting in a hydrophobic, amber-like material called cross-linked polystyrene. This hydrophobicity prevents moisture damage to the DNA. To ensure degradability, thionolactone monomers were incorporated, allowing for breakdown with cysteamine. Overcoming the challenge of embedding hydrophilic DNA into hydrophobic styrene required ingenuity. The researchers identified three monomers that, when polymerized, dissolve DNA and facilitate its interaction with styrene. These monomers work in concert to transfer DNA from water to styrene, forming spherical complexes with a charged DNA core and a hydrophobic outer layer that interacts with styrene. Heating this solution creates a solid, glass-like block containing embedded DNA complexes.

This innovative method, dubbed T-REX (Thermoset-REinforced Xeropreservation), embeds DNA within hours, a timeframe the researchers believe can be further shortened. Retrieving the DNA involves a two-step process. First, cysteamine cleaves the polystyrene bonds, breaking it down. Then, SDS detergent safely removes the DNA from the polystyrene.

The researchers successfully encapsulated DNA strands ranging from tens of nucleotides to an entire human genome (over 50,000 base pairs) using these polymers. They preserved the Emancipation Proclamation, the MIT logo, and, fittingly, the “Jurassic Park” theme music in DNA form.

Importantly, sequencing the extracted DNA revealed no errors, a crucial requirement for reliable digital data storage.

Further testing demonstrated the thermoset polymer’s ability to protect DNA from temperatures up to 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit). The team is currently refining the polymer production and encapsulation process for long-term storage applications. Cache DNA, co-founded by Banal, Bathe, and Johnson (as a scientific advisory board member), is actively developing this DNA storage technology. Their initial focus is on preserving genomes for personalized medicine, with the understanding that advancements in technology will unlock further insights from these stored genomes in the future.

“Our vision is to preserve the blueprint of life indefinitely,” says Banal. “As technology progresses beyond our wildest imagination in the coming decades, we’ll be able to glean even more knowledge from these preserved genomes. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the genome and its connection to disease.”

This groundbreaking research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

The link to the original research news can be accessed here.

Written by


Dr. Ravindra Shinde is the editor-in-chief and the founder of The Science Dev. He is also a research scientist at the University of Twente, the Netherlands. His research interests include computational physics, computational materials, quantum chemistry, and exascale computing. His mission is to disseminate cutting-edge research to the world through succinct and engaging cover stories.

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