This week, Sander Wuyts, a Ph.D. student from the University of Antwerp (UAntwerp) and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) completed an extraordinary competition that involved bitcoin and DNA-related research. Wuyts was the first to decipher hidden messages in a tube of DNA in a scientific challenge where he won a single bitcoin for his accomplishment.
Storing Data In DNA
Sander Wuyts considers himself a “DNA-junkie,” and he’s a big believer in science and technology. Back in 2015, the European Bioinformatics Institute professor, Nick Goldman, gave a presentation at the World Economic Forum in Davos that showed how DNA was an excellent method for storing data. Goldman says that DNA can last longer than existing thumb drives and today’s standard storage technology.
“Unlike a memory stick, for example, DNA lasts for a long time, long after the death of the ‘owner’ — It’s also very compact: you can store an incredible amount of information in a minuscule space,” explains Goldman.
Discovering the Magic of Cryptocurrencies
Following the presentation, Goldman started a contest for students called the “DNA Storage Bitcoin Challenge.” The competition involved individuals trying to decipher messages in a tube of DNA, and the deadline was January 21, 2018. When Goldman launched the contest, a bitcoin was only worth a few hundred dollars, and now the DNA contest prize was worth over $11,000. At the end of the professor’s presentation, sample tubes were handed out in Davos, and the tubes contained “the necessary information to claim the one bitcoin.”
Wuyts said it was more difficult to get his hands on a tube of DNA for the contest, but eventually, he obtained a sample. The Ph.D. student says just like many people in the world right now he was a big fan of bitcoin and the prize motivated him to enter the competition.
“In addition, like the rest of the world, I’ve discovered the magic of cryptocurrencies about half a year ago, and got excited by especially the theory behind it — Thus, when I read the following tweet, it goes without saying that I was extremely enthusiastic,” Wuyts reveals in his personal blog.
I still remember myself announcing to all of my colleagues that we should drop everything we’re doing and start solving this challenge — Now, just over one month later, I’m pleased to announce that I obtained one of these samples, decoded the DNA and successfully claimed the bitcoin!
Hodling the Prize Until the Time Is Right to Fund Further DNA Research
According to Wuyts a few of his colleagues organized a small hackathon using DNA sequencers, a specialized tool for reading out DNA. The student says after a few moments of “banging our heads against the wall” he cracked the message before the deadline. Wuyts says that the message contained instructions on how to claim the bitcoin, a few other notes, the logo of the European Bioinformatics Institute, and a sketch of James Joyce. As far as the bitcoin is concerned Wuyts explains that he plans on holding it until the right time.
“To be honest, I had my doubts about the feasibility of using DNA to store data and this challenge changed that — Now I know very well that this new technology offers great opportunities, maybe even for my own future research,” Wuyts concludes.
I’m probably going to sell it [the bitcoin] when the time is right and then use some of the money for my research. With the rest of the money, I can thank the colleagues who helped me and celebrate my PhD in style.
What do you think about the DNA Bitcoin Challenge? Let us know your thoughts on this story in the comments below.
Images via Shutterstock, Twitter, and Sander Wuyts blog.