Twist Bioscience
February 12, 2018
3 min read

Convention on the Rights of the Child Now Preserved in DNA

On November 20, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrated a 30th anniversary...

…in accordance with the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

Convention on the Rights of the Child

On November 20, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrated its 30th anniversary. To honor the occasion, and preserve the document indefinitely, UNICEF had the convention encoded into synthetic DNA.

An international collaboration between UNICEF, Twist Bioscience, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EMI) in Cambridge, England, and Paris-based Imagene, storing the Convention in DNA underscores the importance the international community places on children’s rights. The genetic material will retain the encoded data for thousands of years, far outlasting current technologies. 

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the world's most important documents,” said UNICEF Norway’s executive director Camilla Viken. “It protects our children and their rights and will now be a part of our organizational DNA. The Children’s Rights Convention is the first official document to be stored in DNA.” 

In addition to its symbolic importance, encoding the convention into DNA is a major technological milestone. DNA is one of the world’s most durable data storage mediums. Scientists have recovered and read genetic material as old as 700,000 years. 

In addition, existing technologies – from server farms to USB drives – can only hold information for limited periods, and technology advances so rapidly, popular techniques quickly fall out of favor. Imagine trying to buy a new computer with a floppy drive.

“Storing digital data in synthetic DNA is like coding on ordinary computers; it's just another language. It's a bit like translating from one language to another,” said Nick Goldman, senior scientist at EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, UK.

The key is converting binary code (0,1) into genetic code (A, C, G, T). Once translated, Twist synthesizes the appropriate sequences in short DNA segments, around 200 to 300 bases. Each segment is “barcoded” to indicate its place in the overall document. These barcodes can identify specific segments to be copied or recalled. The files can be recovered by any DNA sequencer. 

“This project illustrates how we can bring together innovative technologies, based on biology, to protect and benefit children worldwide,” said Twist CEO and co-founder Emily M. Leproust. “We are honored to be a part of this effort.” 

Once the convention was encoded, the DNA was placed in Imagene’s DNAshell®, a stainless steel capsule that can safely store the material at room temperature for around 80,000 years.

Right now, encoding digital data into DNA is an expensive proposition, costing around $1,000 per megabyte. Twist and other companies are advancing new technologies focused on substantially reducing the cost over the next three to five years. 

“DNA is such an ideal medium to store data,” said Leproust. “It can hold a lot of information in a tiny package, and it’s durable. Compared to magnetic storage, DNA basically lasts thousands of years.”

Read the UNICEF global release here

Read the UNICEF Norway release here

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