Team:Groningen/Integrated Practices

Human Practice

Human Practices Projects of CryptoGErM

Beyond the lab… To the understanding of the world

We invite you to discover how CryptoGErM was shaped for Human Practices and how we integrate the results of the small projects

A detailed description can be found in every link

We contacted experts from the Cyber Security Centre from the Ministry of Security and Justice from the Netherlands, institution in charge of the cyber security in our country, to know what are the real challenges that they have to face in the field of encryption. This Institution made comments on our project, they told us that generally when a system is intended for the sending of information rather than just storing it, two questions are important:


The National Institution told us that when the message and the key are sent together in the same package the probability that the information is intercepted and decrypted is really high, therefore it must be ensured that either, the key, the message or both are safe and cannot be accessed easily. To approach that, we designed biological security layers to provide an extra lock. You and your receiver agreed on a biological key beforehand. Only with the biological key, the right treatment of the spores, the DNA of the Bacillus subtilis culture can be harvested and the genome will be sequenced. A wrong treatment will cause the loss of the desired DNA sequence and therefore the message cannot be read anymore.

To make it especially hard for unauthorized parties to access our key, the key-spores will be sent in a mixture of decoy spores. The decoy spores are present in a much higher ratio than the key-spores. The key-spores have to be recovered using a specific selection mechanism. We have developed a ciprofloxacin resistance cassette that can be integrated into the B. subtilis genome. Only the knowledge of this specific selection antibiotic will allow the recovery.

After that contact, we realized that not only governments but also private companies could be interested in using our system. But, which requirements? Would private companies or institutions be interested in using CryptoGErM? Would be able to adapt our system to the conditions required for real users? Is it our system better in comparison with current technologies for the storing and sending of information?

Under the wrong treatment, it will not be possible to retrieve the message

After that contact, we realized that not only governments could use our system, also private companies could be interested in using our system. We interviewed a potential user, the Groningen Archives; they store the entire historical information related with the province of Groningen in the Netherlands. As a result of this interview, we learned that paper (it is often the medium used for the storing of historical information) requires specific conditions that sometimes are not suitable for long-term storing, because they consume resources. In addition to that, paper it is a suitable for information storage just for a couple of hundreds of years. Actually, this Institution has been prepared for the change from physical to digital storing for the last years. The advantages of storing information in DNA is that spores are highly resistant entities that can survive harsh environments; actually spore of Bacillus subtilis can be found after several million years, as shown for the discoveries done in the last years. Besides that, DNA can store up to 109 GB/mm3 which is a regally high density compared with the current technologies that can store only 10 GB/mm3; furthermore, the spores do not need strict environment for their conservation in comparison with paper or digital storage.

We learned also that a system intended for the long-term storing of information must be ensured with storability and accessibility, i. e. the nature of the medium used for the storing does not matter as long as it is insured that the stored information is completely preserved. He told us that DNA is a considerable option if the information does not though mutations. Therefore, we modelled how many times the random mutations could be present in our message by using computational tools, and we concluded that for our specific case the impact of the random mutations influencing our project was extremely low and that we could have safely saved our message.

DNA, the next generation in the storing of information

Additionally to the experts and the potential users, we started a survey to know what is the current perception of the society about the storing and sending of information. We wanted to achieve an extensive and broad range of people from different backgrounds and nationalities; however, though the years we have found out that most of the survey conducted by iGEM teams are in English which excludes people that do not speak this language; therefore, we developed versions of our survey in different languages together with iGEM Teams who shared them in their social media. Originally the survey was developed together with a psychologist to assure that the questions and the structure were correct to obtain the information intended.

Once the system fulfilled the requirements from experts, users and society; the next step was to explore the regulations for the shipping of our spores containing the encrypted information.

The idea of our system is that the encrypted information contained on bacteria can be shipped freely around the world. So, the next important step for the Human Practices and was to look for the national and international legislations that regulate the sending of GMOs, to avoid potential risks to the environment and society. We contacted the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment for guidance in the Dutch Regulations. We found out what is the correct way for the sending of GMOs using conventional methods, such as post. GMOs receive a classification according to its nature, focusing on the fact if the GMOs meet the definition of infectious substances; in our case, the Bacillus subtilis spores with the message are not within this concept and they are assigned to the labelling UN3245. Besides that, we found out that for the shipping of GMOs we must use packings with strict specifications, for example, we used an leakproof envelopment using the labelling mentioned before. We discussed explicitly this in our legal section of Human Practices.

Our spores containing the message and the key moments before being sent

The next step was looking for international regulations; we realized that the International shipping of GMOs is regulated from different legislations depending on the country that is intended for the access of the GMOs. We consulted the three more important guidelines and regulations for the sending to America, Europe and Asia of our system, the Cartagena Protocol in Biosafety, the national legislations from non-parties of the Cartagena Protocol and the guidelines of the World Health Organisation. In the case we want to send to countries outside Europe our Bacillus subtilis spores, we must follow those guidelines.

Sending of spores to our collaborators

We decided to explore different aspects of our project and the repercussions of its introduction as a daily-used system in the near and long future. These scenarios were based on current evidence and scientific researches. We present this fictional scenarios as digital newspapers, following the prediciton that by 2040 the physical newspapers will disappear. We explore the applications of our project that may result of the advantages that DNA has over others storage medium, such as minimal physical space and high density of storing; for example, we can store 109 GB/mm3 in DNA leading to a decrease in the physical space required for the storing. This also leads to a high capacity to store large amount of data in DNA of bacteria.

In our future scenarios we explored the cost and speed of sequencing DNA and the predictions made for those two in the upcoming years. The last step of our project includes the sequencing of the DNA that contains the key and the message, so it was important for us to know the current price and time required for reading our message. We found that the current price for sequencing a Megabase (less than one dollar) of DNA and that the time to read our message would be two hours if the laboratory have the required. One thing that support the use of our system in the near future is that the experts predict that in the near future the techniques used for the DNA sequencing will become better, cheaper and faster.

In addition, we created a fictional scenario where we explore the potential application of our system for the long-term information storage, because researches have shown that Bacillus subtilis spores can last intactly for thousands or even million of years. This fact give the opportunity for our system to be used as a capsule time.

An example of a fictional digital new of our future scenarios

Finally we also did an extensive research about the current type of information that has been stored in DNA, and we found out that a company has successfully stored this year images in DNA; besides that we have successfully stored a complete message in the DNDA of Bacillus subtilis; as a result of that we present fiction al scenarios where a movie is stored in Bacillus subtilis.

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