A new project in the Peccoud Lab focuses on applying digital signatures to DNA in living organisms. Last week, postdoc Jenna Gallegos gave a presentation at the Synthetic Biology, Evolution, Engineering, and Design meeting in ScottsDale, Arizona describing this work.


DNA molecules are frequently shared within the life sciences community, sometimes changing hands many times with only vague descriptions of what they are and where they originated. The exact sequence of these molecules is generally documented electronically, but the association between physical sequences and their electronic documentation is loose. However, simply documenting samples more effectively can create security risks (e.g. publishing the full sequence of a pathogenic virus) or disclose intellectual property. Further, the source of a sample cannot be verified using careful documentation of the DNA sequence alone. In the digital world, the problem of authenticating a document or web page while withholding sensitive information is solved using encryption. Encrypted digital signatures are used to authenticate the source of a digital file and confirm that the file has not been changed. We have developed a system for encrypting DNA molecules in living cells using digital signatures.

There is a growing body of research concerned with traceability and identification of DNA sequences. For instance, it has been proposed that unique watermarks be inserted into the genome of infectious agents or genetically modified organisms. Digital signatures will provide a much greater level of security than watermarking, because a watermark is independent of the sequence it is attached to and can be more easily counterfeited. Asymmetric encryption schemes using DNA sequences have also been proposed; however, our digital signature technology is the first application of a security encryption scheme to DNA in a living organism. The application of digital signatures to DNA is a groundbreaking step towards manipulating DNA with the same level of granularity with which we edit binary codes. Applications of the technology include quality control in life sciences research, protection of intellectual property, more efficient and secure biobanking, and tracking and monitoring of regulated organisms and select agents