Researchers Announce ‘Revolutionary Scientific Advancement’ in Molecular Data Storage and Cryptography

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Storing data in ink sounds like science fiction. A handwritten letter, a priori completely innocuous, hides secret information impossible to see at theeye naked. Yet this is what researchers from the University of Texas at Austin. They published their method in the journal ACS Central Science.

The method described does not allow, at least for the moment, to transmit a complete database in this way, but only a very small quantity of information. To prove that their technique works, the researchers encrypted the text of the book The Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum, which they passed on in the classic way. It’s here encryption key 256-bit AES that they transmitted in ink from a handwritten letter.

On the left, the ink containing the encryption key, on the right the letter sent with this ink.  © ACS Central Science 2022

A technique mixing cryptography and steganography

Just like DNA is a polymer composed of four monomers different, the researchers created a materialcalled polymer defined sequence, composed of a long chain of monomers. The key was converted to hexadecimal (base 16) to be encoded using 16 different monomers. The researchers thus created polymers composed of 10 monomers. The first and last monomer of each group is an isotopic tracer which makes it possible to determine in which order to read the various polymers.

The researchers thus succeeded in encoding 32 bits of information in each polymer. The 256-bit key therefore required a total of eight polymers composed of groups of 10 monomers. They then mixed them withalcohol isopropyl, glycerol and some soot to create ink, used to write a simple letter. They thus used the steganographyin other words a technique for hide one message in another. The real message is therefore not the content of the letter, but the ink used.

Diagram of the technique used, where an encryption key contained in ink makes it possible to decipher The Wizard of Oz.  © SD Dahlhauser et al., 2022

Polymers could one day be used to store large amounts of data

In order to validate the technique, a first group of researchers participated in the development of the letter. It was written on plain paper and then mailed to one of the other co-authors of the article. He used methylene chloride to extract the polymers in the ink, and received information on the method of encoding data at the level of molecules. His team managed to sequence the molecules and recreate the key to encryption correctly on the first try, so she was able to decipher the text of the Wizard of Oz that he received.

This technique is currently quite long and complicated to implement. The researchers want to explore the use of robots to be able to automate the writing and reading of molecules. While a 256-bit sequence represents relatively little information, the goal of researchers is not just to transmit encryption keys. The density of the data recorded in the molecules of the polymers, which includes DNA, is much higher than a hard disk. In the longer term, researchers hope to be able to store large amounts of information in this way.

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