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  • Innovative Polymer for Long-Term DNA Storage

    MIT researchers have engineered a glassy, amber-like polymer for long-term DNA storage, a method inspired partly by the fictional techniques in the movie "Jurassic Park." This novel approach promises to store DNA, including entire human genomes or digital files like photos, at room temperature, avoiding the need for energy-intensive freezing methods.

    The Challenge of DNA Storage
    Current DNA storage methods require freezing, which consumes significant energy and is impractical in many regions. The new amber-like polymer offers a solution by protecting DNA from damage caused by heat or water without the need for freezing. The research team successfully stored DNA sequences encoding the theme music from "Jurassic Park" and an entire human genome within this polymer. Importantly, they demonstrated that the DNA could be easily extracted without damage.

    “Freezing DNA is the number one way to preserve it, but it’s very expensive, and it’s not scalable,” said 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 study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, was led by senior authors Banal and Jeremiah Johnson, the A. Thomas Geurtin Professor of Chemistry at MIT. Former MIT postdoc Elizabeth Prince and current postdoc Ho Fung Cheng are the lead authors of the paper.

    Development of the Amber-Like Polymer
    DNA, a stable molecule, is ideal for storing vast amounts of information, including digital data encoded in DNA sequences. Banal and his advisor, Mark Bathe, an MIT professor of biological engineering, previously developed a method to store DNA in silica particles, leading to a spinout called Cache DNA. However, this method required hazardous chemicals to retrieve the DNA, prompting the search for safer alternatives.

    Banal collaborated with Johnson and his lab to explore degradable thermoset polymers, which solidify when heated and can be broken down in a controlled manner. They chose to create a thermoset polymer from styrene and a cross-linker, resulting in a hydrophobic, amber-like material called cross-linked polystyrene. To ensure degradability, they copolymerized styrene monomers and cross-linkers with thionolactones, which can be cleaved by cysteamine.

    Given the hydrophobic nature of styrene and DNA's hydrophilic, negatively charged nature, the researchers developed a strategy to integrate DNA into styrene. They identified a combination of three monomers that facilitate the interaction between DNA and styrene, forming spherical DNA complexes that become embedded in a solid glass-like block upon heating.
    This method, dubbed T-REX (Thermoset-REinforced Xeropreservation), enables the embedding of DNA into the polymer within a few hours, a process that could be further optimized.

    Efficient DNA Storage and Retrieval
    The team demonstrated the polymer's capability to encapsulate DNA of various lengths, from short sequences to an entire human genome. They successfully stored and retrieved DNA encoding the Emancipation Proclamation, the MIT logo, and the "Jurassic Park" theme music, with sequencing confirming the absence of errors.

    Additionally, the polymer protected DNA from temperatures up to 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit). Future work will focus on streamlining polymer production and forming storage capsules.
    Cache DNA, co-founded by Banal and Bathe, with Johnson on the advisory board, is advancing this technology with an initial focus on storing genomes for personalized medicine. Stored genomes could undergo further analysis as technological advancements are made.

    “The idea is, why don’t we preserve the master record of life forever?” Banal said. “Ten years or 20 years from now, when technology has advanced way more than we could ever imagine today, we could learn more and more things. We’re still in the very infancy of understanding the genome and how it relates to disease.”

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