Young scientist wins bitcoin by hacking DNA
22 January 2018
Sander Wuyts (UAntwerp and VUB) completes remarkable challenge. He was the first to decipher the message in a tube of DNA.
One bitcoin: that is the unconventional prize won by Sander Wuyts, PhD student at UAntwerp and VUB, for successfully completing a remarkable scientific challenge. He was the first to decipher the message concealed by British professor Nick Goldman (European Bioinformatics Institute) in a tube of DNA.
Let’s start at the beginning: Nick Goldman is a well-known British scientist specialising in DNA and the ability to store data in it. In January 2015, Goldman gave a presentation on the subject at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos. “DNA is a really good way of storing information,” Goldman explained. “Unlike a memory stick, for example, DNA lasts for a long time, long after the death of the ‘owner’. It’s also very compact: you can store an incredible amount of information in a minuscule space.”
In Davos, Goldman launched the DNA Storage Bitcoin Challenge: participants received a tube of DNA in which Goldman had encoded some messages. Competitors were given until 21 January 2018 to decipher those messages. The first person able to do so would gain access to the code for obtaining a bitcoin, the well-known virtual currency. The value of a bitcoin at that time was around €180. Its value today: around €8000 – although it has fluctuated considerably in recent weeks.
It turned out to be a tough nut to crack, because by the end of 2017, no one had managed to do it. But then Sander Wuyts saw a tweet by Goldman reminding everyone of his challenge. As a PhD student in the Department of Bioscience Engineering at UAntwerp and joint inventor of the Ferme Pekes fermentation project, Wuyts is particularly interested in the link between DNA and computer science.
“Goldman was still willing to send me a tube of DNA,” says Wuyts. “A few colleagues and I got down to work using DNA sequencers, devices for reading out DNA. We organised a small hackathon, banged our heads against the wall, tried again and suddenly there was that moment of ultimate euphoria: we had cracked the code, and we’d done it before the deadline! The DNA contained instructions on how to claim the bitcoin, the logo of the European Bioinformatics Institute, a drawing of James Joyce and a few other things”.
Sell at the right time
Wuyts immediately contacted Nick Goldman, who responded enthusiastically. The young Antwerp scientist is not sure yet what he will do with his virtual coin. “I'm probably going to sell it when the time is right and then use some of the money for my research. With the rest of the money, I can thank the colleagues who helped me and celebrate my PhD in style.”
But even more important to Wuyts than the valuable prize is the added scientific value of the challenge. “To be honest, I had my doubts about the feasibility of using DNA to store data. This challenge changed that. Now I know very well that this new technology offers great opportunities, maybe even for my own future research.”