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Zurich professors win European inventor prize for DNA encoding work

Two Zurich professors have been awarded a European Inventor Award by the European Patent Office (EPO) for their work on storing large volumes of data in DNA strands.

Wendelin Stark and Robert Grass, from the Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich, won in the “research” category for their method of coding complex data into DNA strands, which are then encapsulated in miniscule glass protective casings.

The technology offers “an unprecedented means of preserving information”, said the Munich-based European Patent Office on Thursday.

With the method, just a tiny amount of DNA is enough to store some 400,000 teraoctets of data, the equivalent of all the videos currently available on YouTube.

The idea of using DNA as a storage means is not new. But DNA tends to chemically decay after exposure to water, air, or heat. The two professors solved this problem by successfully sealing the strands inside tiny glass particles of a diameter up to 10,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper.

They have been involved in a project with British electronic group Massive Attack, when they managed to encode the cult album “Mezzanine” into DNA strands, which they then placed into a can of graffiti spray paint, which was in turn used to design artwork for the 20th anniversary release of the album.

The professors, who work in the ETH’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, are the first Swiss-based names to win the “research” category of the EPO’s inventor prize since 2006.

In 2018, their ETH colleague from the physics department, Ursula Keller, won the European Inventor Award’s “lifetime achievement” category for her pioneering work on ultra-fast laser technology.