The genetic material present in most living organisms has been a vital element in storing life-associated messages from our ancestors. The set of genetic code determines how an organism will evolve. Likewise, storage of any kind of information is essential to know history and for passing of the information/knowledge. Living cells use DNA to store the blueprint of life, but recent technological advances to read and write DNA led scientists to explore the potential of this basic element of life to store the information. Conversely, the digital storage devices are impending their scaling limit and have limited life span. Meanwhile other forms of data storage methods like cloud are expensive and require high energy. Therefore, alternative methods are the need of the hour to increase information storage capacity and longevity at low cost. DNA could store a huge amount of data with low maintenance cost (no electricity and extra care required) and for a long time. Preserving its chemical structure is the key for developing DNA storage technology. However, DNA is a sensitive molecule and degrades when exposed to high temperature, UV light etc. Two scientists, Erlic and Grass have overcome this by coating negatively charged DNA with positively charged silica, thus helping in protecting DNA from deterioration.
The term “DNA of Things” (DoT) can be defined as storage of data/information in everyday objects and the object may be inside living cells (e.g. cellular components) or non-living material for future reference or replication. A recent research by Israeli scientists developed a theoretical method to store 2,15,000 terabyte of data in a single gram of DNA. This is a new form of data storage made-up of DNA molecules encapsulated in nanometer silica beads which can have different shapes and forms unlike memory chips in electronic products. Besides, DNA can be used for marking and is known as DNA “barcode”, embedded in nano-glass beads, applied as tracer for hydro-geological tests, or markers for high quality food products (1). Hydro-geological testing is done using DNA labelled silica nanoparticles as tracers to image subsurface reservoirs by travel time based tomology, for measuring subsurface temperature distribution and is also used in petroleum engineering and geo-energy sectors. The researchers (Erlich and Grass) believe that this method could one day be used to “chip” medication and construction materials with information about them, like their origin, producer and quality. With this kind of technology in future labeling, tracking and quality checking would be easier and tampering proof. However, in the long term security would be a bigger concern, since it is not clear whether individual rights shall be protected or not especially following the Supreme court’s “Right to Privacy” judgment.
With DNA data showing a lot of promise in terms of information storage and technology development, the Government of India is considering establishing a National DNA data bank and regional DNA data bank for states. In July 2019, there was discussion by a parliamentary panel on the contentious DNA Technology (use and application) Regulation bill, 2019. The aim of the bill was to store the unique genetic information for administration purposes (tracking individuals personal records). Besides, it provides the identity of a person, characteristics like if he/she is suffering from any disease etc.
Globally, 69 countries have National DNA database centres including the United States of America, United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, China and Canada. It has been enumerated that countries hold approx. 35,413,155 individuals genetic information and each country has different regulations for collection, discard and storage of DNA samples. An estimation from a 2017 study reveals that the United Kingdom completes DNA tests on over 60,000 crime scenes every year. In 2003, UNESCO unanimously adopted the “Declaration of Human Genetic Data” at its 32nd General Conference, which aims to ensure respect of Human dignity and protection of Human Rights and fundamental freedom for collection, storage and usage of human genetic data. However, there are many concerns like the threat of data hacking, violation of human rights, cost effectiveness, inadequate resources, and possibility of misuse of DNA samples.
The Indian ministry of Science and Technology has approved an ambitious gene-mapping project called the Genome India Project that is being carried out at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru along with collaboration with many other institutes in India and abroad. In this project around 10000 human genomes are to be sequenced in the first phase across India aimed to develop a representative Indian genome. Indian crime labs manage relatively small amounts of DNA samples compared with other developed countries. This lack of capacity may only pile-up criminal cases instead of fast tracking them.
Way forward for India
Modernisation of technology, multiple usage, effective implementation, securing human rights are required before unleashing the DNA bill in India.
- Modernisation of technology: This will accelerate the process to at least 50 samples at a time which will result in the quicker resolution of various pending and current cases and thus will strengthen India’s Justice Delivery System.
- Effective implementation: Effective implementation ensures the proper storage and usage of DNA bills successfully adopted in countries like USA, Canada and China.
- Securing human rights: There could be danger associated with DNA based data storage, how one could ensure data is erased? encryption may be a challenge due to the nature of the molecular information storage. While the storage method and quality is good, it creates privacy compliance concerns. Therefore, with India moving towards digitalization, a robust and efficient data protection law is required at this hour. Also, multinational companies should have representatives like a data protection officer who is responsible for making available any data as needed by the Data Protection Authority.
The 2019 bill has relaxed some stringent provisions such as the obligation of data localisation but exempts government agencies from the provisions for certain circumstances. Providing the government with unregulated and broad powers may defeat the purpose of the Bill and jeopardize an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. The Bill is expected to have far-reaching impacts on Indian businesses and multinational corporations doing business in India.