Robert GrassChemical Engineer at ETH Zurich
Is DNA our new storage device?
‘I believe that you have to go with opportunities. But often you also have to believe in the things you do and do them long enough, even if people say it’s stupid,’ says chemical engineer and lecturer at ETH Zürich Robert Grass.
Grass is certainly a stickler. As a PhD student, Grass refined the concept of using carbon coated metallic nanoparticles to better enable chemists to perform magnetic separations in their research. Based on results of his research he founded the company TurboBeads GmbH in 2007, which makes the chemically functionalized magnetic materials commercially available.
More recently Grass shifted his research interest to the use of encapsulated DNA as an information carrier in digital information storage. Until now, all humankind’s knowledge has been preserved in print or digitally on servers and hard disks. But these have a limited lifespan and need constant maintenance.
Grass and his ETH-colleagues took inspiration from nature to develop a storage medium that has the potential to survive thousands of years. Genetic material in fossils can be retrieved and analysed hundreds of thousands of years after the fossils were formed. The ETH-researchers therefore looked at ways of stabilizing synthesized DNA by encapsulating it into small glass particles. As a proof of concept they translated Archimedes’ The Methods of Mechanical Theorems into DNA sequences that were stored in miniscule glass particles. Just a tablespoon full of these particles could store all the information currently on Facebook and Wikipedia and Twitter.