The Swiss researcher Wendelin Stark and his Austrian colleague Robert N. Grass have been awarded the European Inventor Award 2021 in the category of Research by the European Patent Office (EPO). Both work at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH).
The research team successfully developed a new process for the conservation of data. This involves digital information being turned into genetic code before being artificially conserved in tiny glass beads. The researchers took inspiration from DNA traces contained in fossils over hundreds of thousands of years. In its announcement of this year’s winners, the EPO writes that Stark and Grass have successfully created a storage format with the potential “to protect valuable data for millennia, as well as a robust DNA barcode”.
The technology has already been deployed to trace underground water flows and products in supply chains, according to another EPA press release focusing on the research duo. The album ‘Mezzanine’ by British electronica band Massive Attack was also encoded into strands of synthetic DNA and re-released in DNA format in the form of a spray can containing around a million DNA spheres.
“We envision a world very close down the road where reading DNA is really accessible”, explains Grass, before adding: “If you take the world we work in, reading and writing DNA is like taking pen to paper – a much more commonplace medium for people to interact with”.
ETH Zurich applied for a European patent to cover the invention by Stark and Grass, which was awarded in 2018. Using this and other patents, the two researchers have since been able to successfully commercialize their technology through the ETH spin-off Haelixa.