September 23, 2021

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Two ETHZ researchers won the European Inventor Award

ETH researchers Wendelin Stark and Robert Grass won the 2021 European Inventor Award in the “Research” category. They are given to their DNA data storage system.

The system developed by the researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich consists of encoding digital data in synthetic DNA strands and encapsulating them in glass. The Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO) said on Thursday that the technology “provides an unprecedented way to preserve information”.

All YouTube videos

The European Patent Office wrote that Wendelin Stark and Robert Grass’ invention “paves the way for long-term data storage, overcoming the limitations of our current digital media”. With a tiny amount of DNA, we can store 400,000 terabytes of data, which is the equivalent of all videos currently available on YouTube.

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The two researchers work in the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences in the EPFZ. With DNA storing the genetic information of every organism, they came up with the idea that it could be used as a way to preserve other forms of data.

Inspired by fossils

DNA strands degrade chemically after exposure to water, air or heat if left unprotected. To solve this problem, the two scientists drew inspiration from fossils where DNA has been stored for hundreds of thousands of years. They were able to seal artificial DNA inside tiny glass particles up to 10,000 times the diameter of a sheet of paper.

EPFZ filed for a European patent application granted in 2018. Thanks to their patents, Wendelin Stark and Robert Grass have since commercialized the technology through a “subsidiary”, Healixa, one of ETHZ’s many spin-offs.

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Also read the interview with Didier Queloz: “At ETHZ, there is a franchise, a significant number of researchers, funding and strategic will.”