5 Weird Alternative Uses For DNA

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by Himanshu Sharma

DNA is the building block of life itself, and due to advances in all sorts of complicated sciencey things, lab coat-wearing geniuses have found ways to utilize it that have nothing to do with its intended purpose. And it gets kind of weird, sort of like discovering that a hot tub can be used for a booby trap, we guess.


Data Storage

Reliable data storage is pretty important. Whether it’s our tiny fitness monitors or our phones or DVRs, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the ability to save (un)important information defines our modern lifestyles. Without it, we’re just primitive apes who have no way to archive cat videos and memes, and that’s a life nobody wants to imagine.

We depend pretty heavily on it, and given that our ability to store it is currently limited to whatever humans can invent, we’re soon reaching a point where we’ll run out of space to keep all our burgeoning data. Think about it: The more we put our lives into the digital realm, the more space we require to keep up. According to some estimates, even if every atom found on Earth is utilized to make hard drives and store stuff, we’ll run out of storage in 181 years. We’ve created more information in the past two years than ... well, ever. That’s kind of a problem.

The solution seems to be DNA. Scientists are looking hard at it being a viable means of storing data, and as far as they can tell, it’s pretty damn promising.

DNA has multiple advantages over traditional storage mediums. For one, backwards compatibility and drivers will never be an issue, since no matter how advanced our civilization gets, the method of accessing and pulling data from DNA will always remain the same. Another one is that it’s compact, compared to the proverbial mountains of space we would require to stockpile conventional means of storage.



Pictured: efficiency.

More importantly, DNA can store an impressive amount of information. By converting the system DNA is encoded in to binary, a single gram could house around 215 million gigabytes of data, far surpassing any capabilities we have ever known. They’ve already managed to store about 1.8 million gigabytes in that same space. Efforts to scale that up efficiently are actively under way, too, so tiny hard drives made out of DNA aren’t too far off.

That’s kind of like finding out your travel Thermos can secretly hold ten gallons of coffee because of magic.


Movies portray computer hacking as something you can do on your lunch break with a joystick. All you need to do is mash some buttons, look like a nerd and find yourself in that pivotal moment of the plot when it’s convenient for the hack to fail, then voila: total system compromise. In reality, cracking a computer requires some pretty advanced knowledge of not just the technology, but also humans. A lot of successful hacking attempts require the perpetrators to understand how users behave while using their brain vulnerabilities against them via social engineering.

And in that weird and scary place known as the future, those same hackers will be using new and advanced tools to hone their craft even further -- by using things like human DNA. In fact, it’s already been demonstrated as a plausible avenue to carry malware. That’s ... what?



“I just hacked your pork chops, too.”

In a feat that sounds irresponsible even by research standards, scientists were successfully able to encode a virus onto a DNA strand for the first time. When a computer is used to analyze the sequence, the virus is able to infect the system and spread, basically allowing someone to take full control of the system and do whatever they want.

Sure, at present, DNA sequencing of this kind can only be accomplished using high-end systems by people with intimate knowledge on how this stuff works, but it could potentially be used by criminals to plant viruses at crime scenes in what would amount to very serious attacks on crucial technological systems.

Reducing Art Forgeries

The art world can be a weird scene, whether it’s people sneaking their works into popular galleries or things blowing up because of rotting fish carcasses.

But usually when we think of art-related shenanigans, our minds drift to a movie scene involving elaborate theft with contrived plot devices. In reality, the crime that costs galleries and artists the most is forgery and not high-profile heists. It’s a problem that only gets worse as the forgers get access to new technology, while making it increasingly difficult to tell the real thing from the fake. As such, curators are finding it harder to authenticate original works.

As forgers get better, so do people tasked with detecting those forgeries. And just like every other application on this list, they’re looking at DNA to solve their completely unrelated-to-DNA problem.



Level with us, Suzie. Is this really an original work?

Given its tiny size and identifiability, DNA is now being considered as a possible way to mark art and provide artists with something similar to a vehicle’s number plate. The DNA implanted in the piece would be specially synthesized in a lab for the purpose, once it’s widely accepted by the art community, and would be available for anyone to run through and confirm if the piece they’re holding is authentic or not. It would also be done on a molecular level, since the size of the DNA allows it; this won’t take away from the chemical signature of a piece, just in case anyone still wants to run the more advanced forensic tests to confirm the work’s authenticity.

Researchers already have around three dozen artists and art galleries to test their pilot with, and despite the cost of $150 to tag every piece, they’re confident that this will be the thing that stops forgeries once and for all.

DNA Computers

Modern computing has obviously changed the world. Hell, you’re likely reading this from a tiny computer you carry around in your pocket. Or attached to a belt clip, because you gave up on that whole “style” thing a long time ago.

But production of computational chips that can keep up with the demands of the future has reached a bit of a limitation -- namely that we’re stuck on this whole silicon-based thing and the ability to perform more than one calculation at a time.

Enter DNA, which, as scientists found out, has some pretty crazy advantages over traditional components. For one, computers we can grow instead of make sound rad as hell. But they’d also be tiny and much more power efficient. More importantly, though, they’d be able to compute many things parallelly instead of sequentially.



Not good enough, dammit!

Whereas a normal computer will find the different paths in a calculation sequence one after the other, a DNA computer isn’t restricted by such limits. So it can replicate itself at different points in the sequence and solve the same problem more quickly, as scientists from the University of Manchester recently proved. If the current-generation computers need to compute a thousand equations one after the other to find a viable solution, a DNA computer can replicate itself a thousand times and find it much faster.

And we’re not far off from this becoming a reality -- various branches of research in using DNA for computing are currently ongoing. So a future where computers can grow on their own—depending on the extent of the problem—is right around the corner. We’re not yet sure if that’s a good thing, though.

Flame Resistance

Finding materials that could potentially stop fire from spreading has been a consistently evolving pursuit ever since fire was first discovered (probably). While the old blanket on a burning body trick still works as well as ever, and plenty of powders and coating methods exist to serve the purpose, scientists have been looking into something more ... organic. And they found their answers in the most unexpected place.

Bear with us here, because we’re diving into an aspect of DNA that isn’t exactly of the double helix variety. To be blunt: It’s sperm.

Yes, the tiny things that all life is made of are surprisingly good at keeping fire at bay. DNA makes for an excellent flame retardant if used as a coating, and scientists were presumably as taken aback by the discovery as you might be reading this right now.

Of course, it doesn’t work if you take a flamethrower to it, but a coating made out of DNA extracted from the sperm of a herring is especially good at creating a flame-resistant fabric. Why such an experiment was ever conducted in the first place is still a mystery to us, but when they dissolved the sperm DNA in water and used that coating on cotton, they found out that it just doesn’t burn.



“I concur. Our findings are weird.”

The reason is that when heated up, the phosphate in the DNA turns into phosphoric acid, which in turn replaces all the water in the fabric and makes it a carbon-like, flame-resisting substance. Heating up the DNA also produces ammonia, which works with the carbon residue to further form a protective layer to stop the flames.

While it’s an expensive alternative to other flame retardants available in the market as of now (even if it’s naturally-occurring), these newly-found properties of DNA can give way to more eco-friendly options to the artificially-produced chemicals flame-retardants of today are made out of.

That’s ... kind of incredible. Wait, does that mean we can expect fire departments to start housing giant fish tanks?

Like this article? Check out “Surprising, Unintended Ways People Are Using Common Technology” and “Awesome Stuff You Can Make Out Of Random Household Junk”.

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