Scientists have described DNA as the blueprint of life. DNA nanotechnology has proved to be a powerful tool in many fields of science and technology, including nanoelectronics, molecular computing, biomedicine, and chemical sensing. The current article focuses on the futuristic applications associated with DNA nanotechnology.
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Brief Overview of DNA Nanotechnology
DNA nanotechnology involves the development of synthetic DNA genomes. Owing to their unique chemical and structural properties, DNA is used as programmable material for the controlled synthesis of artificial DNA nanostructures. These nanostructures possess many essential properties, including programmable functions, controllable size, and biocompatibility.
In the last decade, the field of DNA nanotechnology has consistently advanced in computational as well as experimental research. Unlike conventional nanomaterials, DNA nanostructures have several advantages; for instance, they are non-cytotoxic, biocompatible, and biodegradable. Scientists can tune the surface of DNA nanostructures in a controlled manner with molecular specificity.
DNA nanostructures, particularly, DNA origami, can be assembled into a precise shape and size and, thereby, modified for desired biological functions. DNA origami is based on folding long, single strands of DNA into a desirable nanoscale shape by hybridization with short-staple strands composed of unique sequences.
DNA Nanotechnology and Future Applications
DNA nanotechnology has been widely used to develop novel therapeutics, biosensors, bioimaging, and many computational strategies. The evolution of nanotechnology, especially DNA nanotechnology, has changed the current landscape of biology. For instance, DNA is exploited beyond the realm of genetics.
The current information age has witnessed an overwhelming amount of digital data generation, which must be preserved so that the knowledge is not lost and that the future generation has access to it. Synthetic DNA has the potential for many novel applications, some of which are discussed below:
Scientists believe that DNA nanotechnology plays an important role in preserving biological information of the past so that scientists can trace the history of evolution, identify individuals from 530-year-old remains, track the spread of disease epidemics of the past, and more.
In the last several decades, significant advancements have occurred in the field of data technology, such as in the transmission, processing, and storing of information. Scientists believe that using DNA in the storage of information could be the next path-breaking technological advancement in data storage and communication.
Compared to the current optical and magnetic platforms, DNA possesses 1,000,000-fold higher data storage capability. A study has shown that synthetic DNA offers static data maintenance.
Put simply, the data stored in synthetic DNA is not subjected to an undesirable change in sequence or evolution. These data cannot be accessed remotely using the internet service.
Data stored in DNA can be maintained for hundreds of years; for example, a fossilized bone with a half-life of 521 years can store important information. Scientists have performed complete sequencing of an ancient horse living approximately 560,000-780,000 years ago. Studies have predicted that digital data stored in DNA can be recovered after more than two million years.
Scientists revealed that data encoded in DNA can be reproduced exponentially, rapidly, and cost-effectively using polymerase amplification methods. Importantly, synthetic DNA as a storage unit for information does not suffer technological obsolescence. In contrast, the rapid changing of digital technologies requires the constant up-gradation of electronic gadgets.
In 1999, Dr. Carter Bancroft and his colleagues demonstrated that DNA could be utilized for communication. In data communication, data security is more important than speed. Currently, transferring information to DNA is a time-consuming and laborious process. However, synthetic DNA can store encrypted information, similar to digital communication.
One of the key advantages of using DNA in data communication is that it is invisible to naked eyes. Additionally, only a skilled person can extract data from DNA. Hence, DNA can be used as a discreet communication medium with the highest levels of security for transferring crucial information. Importantly, information can be incorporated in two ways, i.e., as direct sequence and as a 3D architecture of assembled DNA molecules.
Bancroft and colleagues revealed that DNA can be used for encrypted messages. They constructed a substitution table-based encryption key that encoded “JUNE 6 INVASION: NORMANDY”. This code was further secured by mixing the coded DNA sequence with non-coding DNA. The concept is similar to steganography. The DNA message was stored in a printed microdot, which could be read using PCR amplification and sequencing. This concept was further upgraded in the coming years by other scientists as well.
DNA for Long-Term Data Storage
Studies have indicated that the high capacity and chemical stability of DNA makes it an ideal candidate for storing information for a prolonged period. To demonstrate the function of DNA as a long-term data storage device, Dr. George Church and his colleague encoded a book containing 53,426 words and images and stored it in DNA. Similarly, scientists have also successfully converted digital html files from bits to bases, by substitution method. Additionally, PDF, JPEG, and MP3 file formats have also been stored in DNA, which required almost 757 kB storage space. Researchers have converted digital codes into bases and stored them in DNA. They found that the information was stable in varied handling conditions.
Scientists compared various platforms for storing DNA with encrypted codes and observed that DNA encapsulated in a silica sphere provided favorable storage conditions. This is because silica provides a physical barrier between water and DNA, and aids long-term stability.
Scientists revealed that in the future, the concept of DNA barcoding could be effectively used for tracking food and agricultural produce for authentication. Additionally, several studies have indicated that DNA can potentially meet future data storage requirements. In this regard, more research is required to make it a cost-effective and user-friendly medium. There are wide-ranging opportunities for innovation in technologies, chemical synthesis methods, and enhancing data security by developing DNA-specific cryptography and steganography methodologies.
References and Further Reading
Yang, Q. et al. (2022). Recent Advances in Self-Assembled DNA Nanostructures for Bioimaging. ACS Applied Bio Materials. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsabm.2c00128
Lacroix, A. and Sleiman, F.H. (2021) DNA Nanostructures: Current Challenges and Opportunities for Cellular Delivery. ACS Nano, 15(3), pp. 3631–3645. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c06136
Keller, A. and Linko, V. (2020) Challenges and Perspectives of DNA Nanostructures in Biomedicine. Angewandte International Edition Chemie, 59(37). https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.201916390
Nummelin, S. et al. (2018) Evolution of Structural DNA Nanotechnology. Advanced Materials. 30 (24). https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201703721
Zakeri, B. and Lu, K. T. (2015) DNA nanotechnology: new adventures for an old warhorse. Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, 28, pp. 9-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpa.2015.05.020