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Belgian Ph.D. student decodes DNA, wins a Bitcoin

University of Antwerp Ph.D. student Sander Wuyts has won the DNA Storage Bitcoin challenge, issued by Nick Goldman of EMBL-EBI in 2015

European Molecular Biology Laboratory - European Bioinformatics Institute

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IMAGE: On Jan. 21, 2015, Nick Goldman of EMBL-EBI explained a new method for storing digital information in DNA to a packed audience at a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos,... view more 

Credit: World Economic Forum.

University of Antwerp PhD student Sander Wuyts has won the DNA Storage Bitcoin challenge, issued by Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in 2015. The value of the coin has risen rapidly in three years, while the value of scientific progress is inestimable.

*The challenge*

On 21 January 2015, Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) explained a new method for storing digital information in DNA, developed at EMBL-EBI, to a packed audience at a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. In his talk, he issued a challenge:

Goldman distributed test tubes containing samples of DNA encoding 1 Bitcoin to the audience (and subsequently posted samples to people who requested them). The first person to sequence (read) the DNA and decode the files it contains could take possession of the Bitcoin.

"Bitcoin is a form of money that now only exists on computers, and with cryptography, that's something we can easily store in DNA," explained Goldman in 2015. "We've bought a Bitcoin and encoded the information into DNA. You can follow the technical description of our method and sequence the sample, decode the Bitcoin. Whoever gets there first and decodes it gets the Bitcoin."

To win, competitors needed to decode the DNA sample to find its 'private key'. All they needed was the sample, access to a DNA sequencing machine and a grasp of how the code works.

The value of a Bitcoin in 2015: around 200 euros.

The deadline: 21 January 2018.

*Good timing*

One week from the deadline, Sander Wuyts, PhD student in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Antwerp and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, was the first to master the method and decode the private key, taking possession of the Bitcoin.

Its value on 19 January 2018: around 9500 euros.

*The contender*

Now completing his PhD in microbiology - exploring the universe of bacteria through DNA - Wuyts has the right balance of passion, coding skills and great colleagues to tackle complex puzzles like Goldman's DNA storage' Bitcoin' challenge.

Wuyts saw Goldman issue the challenge on YouTube back in 2015, but it was the tweet about the deadline in December 2017 - plus the skills he had acquired in the meantime - that made him swing into action. He wrote to Goldman for a sample, sequenced the sample with help from his colleague Eline Oerlemans, and set to work decoding.

Once he got started, Wuyts became increasingly aware that decoding the Bitcoin wouldn't be quite as simple as following a recipe. After one failed attempt and an essential pause over Christmas, he worked tirelessly, with the help of his colleague Stijn Wittouck, to put the data from sequencing into the right order and decode the files.

It didn't work.

"One week before the deadline, I was starting to give up. It felt like we didn't produce enough good quality data to decode the whole thing. However, on the way home from a small 'hackathon' together with Stijn I realised that I made a mistake in one of the algorithms. At home I deleted just one line of code and re-ran the whole program overnight. That next Sunday I was extremely surprised and excited that suddenly the decoded files were right there, perfectly readable - I clicked on them and they opened. There were the instructions on how to claim the Bitcoin, a drawing of James Joyce and some other things."

*What Sander won*

Wuyts, who once invested poster-prize money in cryptocurrency to figure out how this technology works, is proud of having won the challenge but cautious about the prize.

"I didn't win thousands of euros, I won one Bitcoin," he says. "I will probably cash it out, because I have my doubts about the long-term value of this cryptocurrency. What's more important is that before participating in this challenge I had my doubts about the feasibility of such a DNA technology - but now I don't. Instead I have a new perspective on DNA which might come in handy in my future research."

Wuyts intends to use some of the proceeds from selling the Bitcoin to invest in future science projects, thank the people who helped him, and celebrate passing his PhD in style, with everyone who has supported him along the way.

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