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Designer DNA

—replicating like rabbits!

A team of six scientists has demonstrated how to store DNA instructions within any object to be manufactured so that it can be replicated using those instructions. The object they decided to encode was a plastic rabbit, which they then printed using a 3D printer. The researcher’s choice of information storage was DNA, because of its amazing information-carrying capacity and tiny size. Within the resin used to make the plastic rabbit,1 they placed microscopic glass beads containing DNA, encoded with instructions for the 3D printer to make another rabbit. The research was carried out to demonstrate the feasibility of using DNA as an information storage medium, and its ability to survive being copied many times using an industrial process.

For the replication of the rabbit, the researchers took a small piece of the bunny’s ear, and extracted the stored DNA instructions from the plastic. The DNA was read and decoded into instructions for the 3D printer to print another rabbit (replicating the replica). The resin filament used by the 3D printer was then infused with copied DNA instructions, which then became part of the new 3D-printed rabbit. This production cycle was repeated five times to demonstrate the fidelity of the copied DNA information and the feasibility of the method.2

Amazing DNA storage

Scientists recognize the incredibly dense information storage capacity of DNA. For instance, it has been calculated that one pinhead (2mm diameter) of DNA can store the information of a pile of books, reaching to the moon, 492.5 times! Or, imagine a pinhead of DNA stretched out into a filament, having the same diameter as a DNA molecule. How long would this filament be? When you do the maths, it works out as 1.33 × 106 km, which is equivalent to a distance of over 30 times around the earth’s equator!3 The DNA inside one human cell, if unravelled, would extend to two metres. Adults have approximately 12 trillion nucleated cells in their bodies, meaning the total length of DNA in those cells is equivalent to the distance from the earth to the sun—multiplied 160 times!4 This is why researchers are turning to DNA as their information storage medium of choice for futuristic computers, or powerful microscopic depositories of knowledge.

In 3-D printing these rabbits, the DNA was encoded by a special machine that is able to write into the DNA structure any information required (a computer based system called DNA Fountain).5 This might appear trivial to some people, but the proof of the concept being demonstrated by the researchers could mean that any object can carry its own instructions for its replication. Further applications could be to store electronic health records in medical implants, or conceal data in everyday objects (steganography). The researchers mused that their research may even facilitate the development of self-replicating machines—although this comes more from the realms of science fiction, rather than science fact!

Designs require a designer

The researchers used a multi-step process using sophisticated machines (intelligently designed and engineered), requiring much planning and fore-thought to achieve their desired goals. A stereo-lithographic file (stl; printing instructions for 3D printer) was encoded with the geometry for printing the rabbit. This stl file was 45 kB in size (representing 45,000 characters of text code). The information was then programmed into DNA fragments using the DNA Fountain system and the resulting DNA went through several stages of processing to finally become sealed in microscopic glass beads. These were mixed into the resin that formed the 3D printer’s filament—the raw material for printing the desired shape—in this case, a rabbit.

Where did the information come from?

The information to print the 3D rabbit came from the programmers’ minds, the intelligent creators of the plastic model, and the ones whose ingenuity led to the accompanying research. By using a sophisticated machine in a lab (DNA Fountain), the researchers were able to manipulate the letters on the synthetic DNA fragment to encode the 3D printing instructions.

The researchers employed the existing code of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) consisting of four ‘letters’ of specific chemicals: adenine [A], thymine [T], cytosine [C], and guanine [G]. In living cells, these letters are arranged so as to encode information on the DNA double helix. However, it is not the chemical letters themselves that hold the information, rather it is their arrangement, which is completely independent of their chemistry. The DNA letters A, T, C, and G were encoded by the researchers into binary, 1s and 0s, thus:

• A = 00
• C = 01
• G = 10
• T = 11

The resulting binary file became the instructions for the 3D printer to reproduce a model rabbit. The fundamental points to keep in mind, as already stated, are these: the information came from an intelligent source—the minds of the researchers—and the information was not dependent upon the DNA letters, rather their intelligent arrangement. The medium to store the information could have been anything the researchers chose, but it is the purposeful arrangement of that media that conveys the information. The researchers certainly did not use a random process like evolution to encode the information. Yet despite this fact they state:

“ … we created a 3D object that embeds DNA that encodes the blueprint for creating itself … This configuration is reminiscent of biological organisms, in which the instructions for making an object reside within the matter itself.”6

Design, information and intelligence

The underlying assumption for the existence of life is Darwinian evolution but, to date, this idea has not accounted for the information residing in living organisms. Furthermore, that information is independent of the chemistry of DNA. Without the information provided by the researchers, there would be no plastic rabbit, and without information in living DNA there would be no life. But, where did the information for living things come from? The only possible answer is from an intelligent programmer—God!

In another part of the experiment, the researchers proceeded to encode DNA fragments with a two-minute video (1.4 MB), which was implanted into a pair of 3D-printed reading spectacles. “The end result was a pair of ordinary-looking glasses with ordinary-transmittance lenses … that secretly stored a video message.”6

In the research paper, the first-person plural is used 86 times to describe the intelligent process the scientists followed to reach their end goal. For instance: “we devised”, “we applied”, “we synthesized”, “we stored”, “we selected”, “we processed”, and “we created”, etc. If so much intelligent forethought was required to encode the DNA with instructions to make a plastic rabbit, how much more intelligent forethought was required to encode the DNA with instructions for making a living rabbit—one that can also breed like a rabbit?

DNA fidelity

One of the research goals was to demonstrate how many times the DNA could be copied over and over to produce the plastic rabbits, without corruption of information. It turns out, quite a lot! The research states:

“ … even if we restrict the number of replications to five generations, it is theoretically possible to create at least … 8.44 × 1019 bunnies without resynthesizing the DNA library.”1

That theoretical number is more than the stars in many large galaxies! This is testimony to the stability of DNA as a storage medium, compared to human technology.7 It means it can be copied over and over many times, before the information in DNA begins to degrade. Furthermore, the intelligently designed machines which the researchers used to synthesize and replicate the DNA instructions, are themselves analogous to the cellular machinery essential to DNA replication in living organisms. Yet, the 3D printer itself pales into insignificance when compared to the amazing abilities of living organisms to metabolize their food, grow, heal, and multiply. The replication of DNA in living cells, is astonishing in its accuracy (typically 1.2 errors per hundred million base-pairs per generation). An array of machinery is on-hand, in the cell, ready to repair and check the copied DNA information. All of this is far beyond human technology.

Conclusion

The clever and intelligent research done by these scientists goes a long way to demonstrate that information and the machinery required to utilize it can only come about by intelligent means. If the scientists required so much engineering and programming ability to be able to produce a ‘reproducible’ plastic rabbit—how much more so the Lord of Creation, who designed and sustains His astonishing Creation for His own glory? “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11).

Published: 31 August 2020

References and notes

1. Resin is a synthetic organic polymer (in liquid or solid form) which is used as the basis of plastics. Return to text.
2. Liverpool, L., 3D-printed bunny contains DNA instructions to make a copy of itself, newscientist.com, 9 December 2019; accessed 4 June 2020. Return to text.
3. Gitt, W., Dazzling design in miniature: DNA information storage, Creation 20(1):6, December 1997. Return to text.
4. Leslie, J.G., In Brief—DNA mutation and design, Creation 6(4):18, 1984. Return to text.
5. For interested readers see: Robertson, C.R., DNA Fountain Improves Data Storage, 22 April 2017, evolving-science.com; accessed 6 June 2020. Return to text.
6. Koch, J. et al., A DNA-of-things storage architecture to create materials with embedded memory, Nature Biotechnology, doi.org/10.1038/s41587-019-0356-z, 9 December 2019. Return to text.
7. However, this idea of DNA stability is often overblown as DNA is a fragile molecule, and requires all the cellular machinery of life to sustain it. Ideas of DNA surviving for 100,000s or even millions of years are unfounded, see: Sarfati, J., DNA: the best information storage system, 4 June 2015. Return to text.