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Amber-like polymer allows for long-term storage of DNA and digital files

Jun. 15, 2024.
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No freezing required

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Amara Angelica

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The glassy, amber-like polymer can be used for long-term storage of DNA, such as entire human genomes or digital files such as photos. (credits: MIT News; iStock)

MIT researchers have developed a glassy, amber-like polymer that can be used for long-term storage of DNA, including entire human genomes or digital files such as photos. 

“The rapid decline in DNA sequencing costs has fueled the demand for nucleic acid collection to unravel genomic information, develop treatments for genetic diseases, and track emerging biological threats,” the researchers say.

Most current methods for storing DNA require expensive freezing temperatures and are not feasible in many parts of the world. The new polymer can store DNA at room temperature while protecting the molecules from damage caused by heat or water. 

“Freezing DNA is the number one way to preserve it, but it’s very expensive, and it’s not scalable,” says James Banal, a former MIT postdoc. “I think our new preservation method is going to be a technology that may drive the future of storing digital information on DNA.”

The researchers showed that they could use this polymer to store DNA sequences and that the DNA can be easily removed from the polymer without damaging it.

Banal and Jeremiah Johnson, the A. Thomas Geurtin Professor of Chemistry at MIT, are the senior authors of the study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Capturing DNA

DNA offers a way to store this digital information at very high density: a coffee mug full of DNA could store all of the world’s data. DNA is also very stable and relatively easy to synthesize and sequence.

The researchers decided to make a thermoset polymer from styrene and a cross-linker, which form an amber-like thermoset called “cross-linked polystyrene.” This thermoset is also very hydrophobic, so it can prevent moisture from getting in and damaging the DNA.

“Inspired by the millennia-long preservation of fossilized biological specimens in calcified minerals or glassy amber, we present Thermoset-REinforced Xeropreservation (T-REX): a method for storing DNA in deconstructable glassy polymer networks,” say the researchers.

Storing information

Using these polymers, the researchers showed that they could encapsulate DNA of varying length, from tens of nucleotides up to an entire human genome (more than 50,000 base pairs). After storing the DNA and then removing it, the researchers sequenced it and found that no errors had been introduced, which is a critical feature of any digital data storage system.

The researchers also showed that the thermoset polymer can protect DNA from temperatures up to 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit). They are now working on ways to streamline the process of making the polymers and forming them into capsules for long-term storage.

Storing genomes

The earliest application they envision is storing genomes for personalized medicine, and they also anticipate that these stored genomes could undergo further analysis as better technology is developed in the future. 

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Citation: Elisabeth Prince, Ho Fung Cheng, James L. Banal, and Jeremiah A. Johnson. Reversible Nucleic Acid Storage in Deconstructable Glassy Polymer Networks, Journal of the American Chemical Society. 10.1021/jacs.4c01925

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