French scientists have created the first synthetic polymers that can store information as bits of 0s and 1s. You might think of it as a highly simplified version of DNA, another molecule that is very, very good at storing information. These new polymers could one day replace DNA in the burgeoning field of molecular barcoding.
Molecular barcodes are basically invisible tags sprayed onto anything deemed especially counterfeitable—medicine, luxury hand bags, original art, etc etc. The molecules have a secret sequence that can confirm their authenticity. Because DNA is such a good information storage molecule and so readily available, it has been on the vanguard of molecular barcodes. But these new synthetic polymers composed of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen are simpler than DNA, so they could be one day easier and cheaper to use.
Like DNA, the synthetic polymer is a chain of repeating molecules. DNA is made up of four bases—A, T, C, and G—while the polymer is made up of two monomers, one representing 1 and the other 0. (To make things a little more complicated, the polymer does have a third polymer between the bits that helps reading and writing of the sequence.)
The sequence is “written” by growing the polymer chain by hand and decoded using a mass spectrometer, a standard piece of lab equipment used to determine chemical makeup. The polymer could last for months, maybe even years given the right conditions. It degrades at above 140 degrees F.
For synthetic polymers to take off, they’ll need to be better than DNA, which can already be synthesized very quickly with our automated machines. Given its simpler structure, that may one day be possible—just not yet.
Top image: Roy et al / Nature Communications