Instructions Included: 3D-Printed “DNA” Is Stored in Everyday Objects

ETH Zurich researchers develop a way to store assembly, operating instructions via 3D-printed “DNA.”

Like humans, inanimate objects have unique and distinctive characteristics that make them what they are. Unlike humans, those objects don’t come with built-in instructions. ETH Zurich researchers, working alongside Israeli computer scientist Yaniv Erlich, have created a “DNA” for 3D-printed objects.

The team drew inspiration from two main technological advances: DNA data storage and nanotechnology. Erlich’s work has made it possible to store 215,000 tetrabytes of data in one gram of DNA. The evolution of nanobeads, tiny glass beads embedded with a barcode, make it possible to mark items for authenticity. Combining these two advances, the team created a new type of storage, which they call the “DNA of Things.”

“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,” said Robert Grass, professor at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich.

The plastic used to create this 3D-printed rabbit contains DNA molecules encoded with printing instructions. (Image courtesy of ETH Zurich.)

The plastic used to create this 3D-printed rabbit contains DNA molecules encoded with printing instructions. (Image courtesy of ETH Zurich.)

The research team’s idea came to fruition in the form of a 3D-printed rabbit. The plastic used to create it was embedded with around 100 kilobytes of data via nanobead DNA that provides instructions on how to print the rabbit. Like human DNA, the plastic rabbit’s DNA is retained for generations. Using the first plastic rabbit, the researchers created five new plastic rabbits from the embedded DNA instructions.

“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.”

The team plans on taking the technology to the next level by concealing it in everyday objects via steganography. The glass beads required could be poured into plastic objects that don’t reach high-heat levels, such as glasses, without being detected.

The manufacturing aspects of their work could be far-reaching. The researchers theorize it could be used in various fields, including the medical and construction industries. Quality requirements stored in a material could make it easier to read test results for medications or provide manufacturer information for building materials.

While this research seems to have great potential, its cost could put a damper on it becoming mainstream anytime soon. According to Grass, translating a 3D printing file like the one stored in the plastic rabbit’s DNA costs around $2,000.

Interested in more ways 3D printing is being taken to the next level? Check out Engineers Use 3D Printing to Turn 2D Materials into Electrodes and New Living 3D-Printed Skin Includes Vascular System.