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A team is encoding digital data into DNA molecules which are then embedded into larger physical objects, like this plastic bunny! And researchers are working on a new, low maintenance oral contraceptive.

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DNA Bunny

Once a Month Birth Control


This might look like an ordinary 3D printed plastic bunny. But unlike most figurines, it contains the DNA blueprints for its own creation.

If you clip off a tiny piece of its ear, you can sequence that DNA and obtain the plans you need to print another bunny. It's a new way of storing information. Or, I guess, a new twist on an old way.

The research team that created it call it the “DNA of Things”: digital data gets encoded into DNA molecules which are then embedded into larger physical objects. And they think it could change the way we transmit and store information. It's well established that DNA can store lots of information in small packages after all, each of your cells, which are pretty tiny, contains the blueprints for an entire human.

And scientists have figured out how to tap into this data-storing power. They can convert the ones and zeros of digital information into the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs of DNA. And that lets them store information in a ridiculously tiny amount of space.

We're talking about up to two hundred fifteen petabytes per gram of DNA. That's two hundred fifteen with fifteen zeros on the end. Plus, unlike a computer chip, this information can be stored in pretty much any shape.

That's what really excited the research group behind the bunny, which was part of a paper published this week in Nature Biotechnology. The team first figured out how to put designed DNA molecules into tiny glass beads so they could withstand high temperatures and many of the chemical reactions that can damage DNA. Then, they put those beads into a kind of plastic that can be used in 3D printing.

And here's where the research group got real clever. Since the blueprints for 3D printed objects are digital files, they decided to embed the plans for an object in the object itself. The research team took the files for a 3D printed bunny and encoded them into a DNA sequence.

They then inserted many copies of that DNA into silica beads, and then added those beads to the plastic material that was used to print the bunny. The end product was a plastic bunny that contains the instructions for making itself. Just like we do! ...not exactly like we do.

And the researchers demonstrated that it retains that information over time. They clipped one one hundredth of a gram of material from the bunny's ear and ran it through a DNA sequencer to decode the plans. Then, they used those plans to print another bunny.

They successfully repeated this process of printing and recovering DNA four times. They even waited nine months after printing the fourth copy of the bunny before extracting its DNA, and they still got enough data to make a fifth copy. Now, it's not hard to imagine using this kind of technology to hide secret messages, like in a spy movie.

After all, to the naked eye, you can't tell that the bunny figurine is different from any other. And to take this secret data idea one step further, the group encoded a two-minute long YouTube video in some DNA beads, and then added them to a kind of plexiglass to make a pair of lenses. WHICH I'M WEARING RIGHT NOW.

I'm not. That was a lie. But they did put the lenses in an ordinary frame, and it looked like a regular old pair of glasses.

But this tech isn't just for covert ops. The researchers hope it can prove useful in all sorts of ways. Like, building relevant medical records into a pacemaker or other implant, so they're accessible years or decades down the line even if the electronic records are lost.

The method could even be used to build self-replicating machines. Though, we're not quite there yet, since the bunny would need to have a built-in sequencer and also, the plans for a 3D printer in its DNA, as well. Speaking of self-replication, though researchers may have found a new, low maintenance way to prevent pregnancy.

In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, the MIT-based team unveiled a new once a month birth control pill. Oral contraceptives or “birth control pills” are great in many ways. You can administer them yourself in the privacy of your own home.

And they're accessible to people in areas where doctors trained to implant long-term contraceptive devices are too few and far between or cost too much. The trick is that for them to be most effective, you have to stick to a strict daily schedule. And humans aren't always great at that.

So scientists wondered if they could design a pill that you'd only need to take once a month, as fewer pills generally means better adherence to the regimen. The challenge was to design something that didn't immediately pass through the gut and that would maintain consistent drug levels for at least three weeks. The first part was accomplished by creating a foldable device that fits in a gel capsule.

After the pill is swallowed, the stomach acid dissolve the capsule, allowing the device to unfold into an asterisk-like shape with a width of about 5.5 centimeters—too big to pass into the intestines. As for delivering drugs, the device is made with a special digestion-resistant silicone and loaded with the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel. So, in theory, it should act kind of like an implanted device, and slowly release the hormone over time.

In theory doesn't really matter as much as in practice, though, so the team ran a trial in pigs. They compared two different formulations of the device to a typical daily birth control pill. And, as expected, the daily pill created a quick hormone spike that lasted less than 48 hours.

But the better of the two slow-release devices kept the hormone level elevated for weeks. Plus, the devices themselves stayed in the pigs' stomachs as planned. That doesn't mean this monthly birth control is ready for people, though.

The researchers only measured the presence of the drug, not its ability to prevent pregnancy. That's what they plan to look at next as well as how to get the device out when the month is over, because apparently they have not figured that out yet and it seems important. So, obviously, follow up studies are needed before this kind of pill can be tried in humans.

But if it does pan out, it could make birth control more accessible, especially in places where implantable devices are hard to come by for economic or cultural reasons. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow News! To keep up to date on the latest developments in science, be sure to tune in right here every Friday.

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