Looking to keep your bitcoin fortune safe? Here's one option: Hide your password inside a micro tube of DNA.
It's a unique and extreme insurance policy for the risky world of cryptocurrency -- and one that incorporates a new area of genetics research: using synthetic DNA as a way to store data. Scientists can store anything in DNA, be it a Word doc, an animated GIF, an operating system. And while it seems outlandish, it could become a legitimate alternative as we struggle to find places to store our ever-growing collection of data.
Watch this: DNA data storage could solve a big problem
Bitcoins. DNA. Micro tubes. Carverr CEO and co-founder Vishaal Bhuyan admits it sounds wild, but he sees this as just a different type of encryption tool -- one that will last longer and could be more secure than saving your account details on a hard drive. He's not the only one -- Bhuyan says he's hearing buzz about other start-ups exploring DNA storage.
And given the hysteria over cryptocurrency this year, this crazy-sounding technique may be a little appropriate. Owning cryptocurrency, like bitcoin, comes with plenty of risk. Lose the keys to your account, and you lose your digital money -- forever.
Bhuyan said 28 customers so far have signed up and paid the $1,000 fee to have this done. Carverr is also in talks to expand the service with banks and other large cryptocurrency holding companies.
"DNA is the only thing that won't become obsolete," said Bhuyan. "So the way I look at it, this is a trust or 401(k) that you can allocate some of your assets to and keep for a very, very long period of time."
How to save a file as DNA
Converting a data file into DNA is a surprisingly simple concept. Data, when broken down into a basic binary form, is just a bunch of zeros and ones. As for DNA, its language is made up of four letters: A, T, C and G -- the abbreviations for the nucleotides that make up the rungs of the DNA ladder.
To translate binary to the language of DNA, you need to have a conversion system. Let's say A = 00, T=01, C=10, and G=11. In this example, the string 11000101001000 would translate to GATTACA.
Today labs can print out the DNA chemicals together in any order you want -- be it "GATTACA" or something much longer. We refer to DNA as the building blocks of life, but nothing here comes from anything alive -- it's all synthetic.
It just sits at the bottom of a plastic micro tube, sometimes suspended in a drop of liquid, stored until it's ready to be read by a lab-sequencing machine. At that point, the alphabet code can be translated back into ones and zeros.
Why put a password in DNA?
Carverr's customer is the type of person who has a large amount invested in cryptocurrency and plans to hold on to it for the long haul. That means they need a secure backup that won't become outdated. Store the wallet information on a hard drive, and something may happen to that drive in 20 or 30 years that makes it hard to access or that corrupts it. Store it in DNA, and it could last generations. Labs will always have the technology to read DNA.
The science behind saving digital files inside DNA is pretty new -- and pretty expensive. All sorts of files have been encoded as DNA: a short movie clip, a Linux operating system, even an $50 Amazon gift card. But in a 2017 study, it cost nearly $7,000 for researchers to save just 2 megabytes in DNA, and another $2,000 to retrieve it.
Despite the cost, large-scale storage is possible. In February, researchers at the University of Washington and Microsoft put 200 megabytes of data into 13 million DNA oligonucleotides -- among the files was OK Go's music video for "This Too Shall Pass."
Humans have a data problem
The quest to save files in DNA is one possible solution to a growing data storage problem. Research says by 2025, humans could be producing 160 zettabytes of data -- that's 160 trillion gigs, or 10 times more than we generated in 2016. By 2040, research estimates we will not have enough microchip-grade silicon to store it all on hard drives. In fact, cheaper magnetic tape is a more common solution for long-term storage today. (Although it may last a decade or two before it needs to be replaced.)
DNA could eliminate that issue. In one gram of synthetic DNA, scientists could theoretically fit 215 petabytes of information. That's over 100 million movies in something that's smaller than a jellybean -- and it lasts hundreds of years.
So, preserving a family photo album in DNA? It's not practical yet. But how about 50 bytes worth of characters that can unlock a valuable cryptocurrency wallet? Sure, maybe an investor won't mind dropping a grand for that.
Making DNA hard for hackers to crack
Carverr's formula for translating binary into DNA is more complicated than our "GATTACA" example, but the core idea is the same. You don't even need to give the company your cyptocurrency private key; it can be an encrypted version.
What if someone steals the vial with DNA? They need to know Carverr's system of what the A's, T's, C's and G's represent and then need to also know how to unscramble your encryption. As an extra layer of privacy, the entire business transaction is conducted over an encrypted mail service called ProtonMail.
In other words, Carverr made sure a DNA bitcoin heist wouldn't be easy.
In about a week, customers receive five copies of the DNA sent in mail, each a drop of liquid in its own micro tube. Customers are encouraged to keep it in the freezer to best preserve it.
DNA may last a long time, but it can decay faster if exposed to heat and light. Bhuyan says Carverr is also exploring using different mediums that may be more durable, and may even provide backup vials to customers.
One customer we visited was a 28-year-old real estate investor named Nate. (We agreed to not use Nate's last name to protect his privacy.)
For him, the vials sitting in his freezer were a worthwhile investment to protect his bitcoin holdings for years to come.
"It's the final insurance policy," he said. "And the last line of defense if the other backup solutions fail."
The story originally published at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 2:24 p.m. PT: To include additional background.