Scientists Report Method for Secure Communication Using DNA

It’s a study that would make John le Carré proud. DARPA-funded MIT scientists published results of a new method for encrypting messages in synthetic DNA for highly secure communication. It popped up on our radar because our BluePippin automated size selection instrument was used during sequence analysis.

In the PLoS One paper, “Multiplexed Sequence Encoding: A Framework for DNA Communication,” authors Bijan Zakeri, Peter Carr, and Timothy Lu describe new approaches to encoding, encrypting, and fragmenting messages across multiple plasmids. “With synthesis and sequencing speeds rising, and costs rapidly declining, DNA is an intriguing option for the transfer and storage of digital information,” they write.

The team designed QWERTY-style keyboards to easily convert English words into nucleic acids, being careful to assign codons in a way that would minimize homopolymers in the resulting DNA sequence, though they note that users would be able to shuffle codon assignments for their own preference or to increase security of the message.

Next, they created what they call a “secret-sharing system” that encrypts the message and splits it across several DNA molecules, requiring the recipient to use a combination key to reveal the message. “This approach can add an additional layer of protection for a communication and also provide opportunities to explore introducing tiers of complexity within a communication that is afforded by the unique makeup of DNA as a chemical polymer for information storage,” the scientists write. (In a step we really enjoyed, the team also took the opportunity to encode decoy messages into the DNA.)

For the final part of the process, the team came up with a new approach to extract the original message. “We investigated a new method that allows for the multiplexed sequencing of multiple DNA molecules with a common primer, where regions within distinct DNA molecules that have matching information can be identified from a single sequencing reaction via chromatogram patterning,” they report. They validated the whole process by encoding watermarks, messages, and a combination key into six synthetic DNA strands, honoring the cryptography field by using an important World War II communication.

The scientists note that this work demonstrates proof of concept, and that they plan to follow up with additional innovations in future efforts.

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