Belgian PhD student decodes DNA and wins a Bitcoin

Sample of DNA with digital information stored in it
Sample of DNA with one Bitcoin (and some other files) embedded, as posted to Sander Wuyts. [Image credit: Sander Wuyts]

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Antwerp, Belgium 22 January 2018  – University of Antwerp PhD student Sander Wuyts has won the DNA Storage Bitcoin Challenge, issued by Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in 2015. The value of the Bitcoin has risen rapidly in three years, while the value of scientific progress is inestimable.

Summary

  • DNA Storage scientist Nick Goldman issued the Bitcoin Challenge at World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, January 2015.
  • One week before the 21 January 2018 deadline, PhD student Sander Wuyts of the University of Antwerp is the first to decode the encrypted Bitcoin, taking ownership.
  • Decryption of encoded information in the DNA sample demonstrates that the digital storage method is practical
  • Initiative of bioengineering PhD student inspires future research.

The challenge

On 21 January 2015, Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute explained a new method for storing digital information in DNA to a packed audience at a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. At the end of his talk, he issued a challenge.

Goldman distributed test tubes containing samples of DNA encoding 1 Bitcoin to the audience (and subsequently posted samples to people who requested them). The first person to sequence (read) the DNA and decode the files it contained could take possession of the Bitcoin.

We’ve bought a Bitcoin and encoded the information into DNA…

“Bitcoin is a form of money that now only exists on computers, and with cryptography, that’s something we can easily store in DNA,” explained Goldman in 2015. “We’ve bought a Bitcoin and encoded the information into DNA. You can follow the technical description of our method and sequence the sample, decode the Bitcoin. Whoever gets there first and decodes it gets the Bitcoin.”

To win, competitors need to decode the DNA sample to find its ‘private key’. All they needed was the sample, access to a DNA sequencing machine and a grasp of how the code works.

The value of a Bitcoin in 2015: around €200.

The deadline: 21 January 2018.

Good timing

One week from the deadline, Sander Wuyts, PhD student in the Department of Bioscience Engineering at the University of Antwerp and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, was the first to master the method and decode the private key, taking possession of the Bitcoin.

Its value on 19 January 2018: around €9500.

Nick Goldman at Davos, 21 January 2015

Nick Goldman issues his “DNA Storage Bitcoin Challenge” at the 2015 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. [Video at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/03/video-can-dna-preserve-our-data/]

The contender

Now completing his PhD in microbiology – exploring the universe of bacteria through DNA – Wuyts has the right balance of passion, coding skills and great colleagues to tackle complex puzzles like Goldman’s “DNA Storage Bitcoin Challenge”.

“This challenge made me really think about DNA as an information carrier for things other than biology,” says Wuyts. “Before, I always thought of DNA as inherently coupled to biological life. For example, in my PhD, DNA is the main molecule I use to figure out which bacteria are alive in food fermentation. This challenge brought home that DNA can be much more than that. ”

Wuyts saw Goldman issue the challenge on YouTube back in 2015, but it was the tweet about the deadline in December 2017 – plus the skills he had acquired in the meantime – that made him swing into action.

Tweet from @EBIGoldman on 5 December 2017

Nick Goldman tweets a reminder about the DNA Storage Bitcoin Challenge on 5 December 2017

“I thought, that’s the challenge for me! I tweeted to see if anyone out there had a DNA sample left over, and Nick got right back to me and sent me some. My supervisor was very supportive of me doing this side project (though a bit surprised that I managed it), so I contacted Illumina for a sequencing kit and my colleague Eline Oerlemans offered to help me load the DNA sequencer. In the end it didn’t cost us anything but our time.”

The method for encrypting digital information in DNA was developed by a group at EMBL-EBI. Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, is based on Blockchain software, which is Open Source and free for anyone to use.

False starts

Once he got started, Wuyts became increasingly aware that decoding the Bitcoin wouldn’t be quite as simple as following a recipe. After one failed attempt and an essential pause over Christmas, he worked tirelessly, with the help of his colleague Stijn Wittouck, to put the data from sequencing into the right order and decode the files.

It didn’t work.

“One week before the deadline, I was starting to give up. It felt like we didn’t produce enough good quality data to decode the whole thing. However, on the way home from a small hackathon together with Stijn I realised that I made a mistake in one of the algorithms. At home I deleted just one line of code and re-ran the whole program overnight. That next Sunday I was extremely surprised and excited that suddenly the decoded files were right there, perfectly readable – I clicked on them and they opened. There were the instructions on how to claim the Bitcoin, a drawing of James Joyce and some other things.”

Read Sander’s blog post about How He Did It

What Sander won

Wuyts, who once invested poster-prize money in cryptocurrency to figure out how this technology works, is proud of having won the challenge but cautious about the prize.

Before participating in this challenge I had my doubts about the feasibility of such a DNA technology – but now I don’t…

“I didn’t win thousands of euros, I won one Bitcoin,” he says. “I will probably cash it out, because I have my doubts about the long-term value of this cryptocurrency. What’s more important is that before participating in this challenge I had my doubts about the feasibility of such a DNA technology – but now I don’t. Instead I have a new perspective on DNA that might come in handy in my future research.”

Wuyts intends to use some of the proceeds from selling the Bitcoin to invest in future science projects, thank the people who helped him, and celebrate passing his PhD in style, with everyone who has supported him along the way.

– Ends –

This post was originally published on EMBL-EBI News