Living beings contain their own assembly and operating instructions in the form of DNA. That's not the case with inanimate objects. Anyone wishing to 3D-print an object also requires a set of instructions. If they then choose to print that same object again years later, they need access to the original digital information; the object itself does not store the printing instructions.

Researchers have developed a means of storing extensive information in almost any object. With the method, 3D-printing instructions can be integrated into an object, so that after decades or even centuries, it will be possible to obtain those instructions directly from the object itself.

A previously developed method involved marking products with a DNA “barcode” embedded in minuscule glass beads. These nanobeads have various uses; for example, as tracers for geological tests or as markers for high-quality foodstuffs, thus distinguishing them from counterfeits. The barcode is relatively short —just a 100-bit code. At the same time, it has become possible to store enormous data volumes in DNA. A method also was developed that theoretically makes it possible to store 215,000 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA and store an entire music album in DNA — the equivalent of 15 megabytes of data.

The new storage form is called DNA of Things. As a use case, the researchers 3D-printed a rabbit out of plastic that contains the instructions (about 100 kilobytes’ worth of data) for printing the object. The researchers achieved this by adding tiny glass beads containing DNA to the plastic. The new technological method retains the information over several generations — a feature the scientists demonstrated by retrieving the printing instructions from a small part of the rabbit and using them to print a whole new one. They were able to repeat this process five times, essentially creating the “great-great-great-grandchild” of the original rabbit.

The researchers used the technology to store a short film (1.4 megabytes) in glass beads, which they then poured into the lenses of ordinary glasses. In theory, it should be possible to hide the glass beads in any plastic objects that do not reach too high a temperature during the manufacturing process. Such plastics include epoxides, polyester, polyurethane, and silicone.

The technology could be used to mark medications or construction materials such as adhesives or paints. Information about their quality could be stored directly in the medication or material itself; medical supervisory authorities could read test results from production quality control directly from the product. And in buildings, for example, workers doing renovations can find out which products from which manufacturers were used in the original structure.

For more information, go to ETH Zurich .