Genecoin is offering to sequence your DNA, convert it into data and preserve it using the Bitcoin distributed data storage network.
Developed back in the 1970s, the process of DNA sequençing today costs far less in both time and money than even a few years ago. However, given that the double helix deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecule that encodes the genetic instructions for the development and functioning of all known living organisms contains millions of chemical components, processing the human genome – the entire genetic material of a human being – requires huge computing capacity. In the early 2000s sequencing a complete human genome cost around $100 million but ten years later that figure had fallen to around a thousandth, at just $10,000. Now San Diego, California-based Illumina, a biotech company which specialises in DNA sequencing and was ranked by MIT this year as the ‘smartest company in the world’, recently announced that it had developed a machine capable of sequencing a human genome in two days at a cost of only $1,000.
Each human being has a unique genetic heritage. Many people are becoming curious to know what their DNA has to say about them, but most people who are getting excited at this prospect are also keen to ensure that the data is kept securely. Boston-based startup Genecoin is now looking to meet this nascent need by storing the data on the Bitcoin network, a peer-to-peer decentralised network on which all data is encrypted.
Bitcoin network a new secure depository?
Hitherto the only way for a human being to preserve his/her genes has been to transmit them physically/biologically down through the generations by means of procreation. Now Genecoin’s promise is to preserve the genetic ancestry of any and every person by uploading their genome data into the Bitcoin network. Genecoin will send you a kit which allows you to take a sample of your DNA in the form of saliva. This will then be sent to one of biotechnology companies specialising in genome sequencing. The resulting data will then be uploaded on to the Bitcoin network, a peer-to-peer network where people can make payments directly from one to another without passing through a third party such as a bank. Data on the network is encrypted using an asymmetric cryptographic protocol. The network timestamps all transactions by including them in blocks that form an ongoing chain called the ‘block chain’. The network is constantly growing – a new block is created around every ten minutes – and Genecoin’s novel idea is to take it beyond its current use as a secure online payments system and turn it into a permanent Cloud backup where customers’ genetic data can be stored.
Genecoin appears to be betting that the Bitcoin cryptocurrency network is here to stay and that it will remain a useful means of storing genetic data either in publicly accessible or encrypted form; the startup is currently working on the encryption side. Moreover this decentralised data storage approach could eventually serve as an individual’s ‘proof of existence’, a sort of digital birth certificate, without having to go through a third party body such as the local registrar, with the added factor that each person’s identity would thus become ‘immortal’ as long as the Bitcoin – or similar block chain – remains in existence.
Biometrics leading to new applications
Biometrics – literally ‘life measurements’ – are now being used in an ever-increasing variety of technological areas, especially in security systems. Today you can for instance unlock your smartphone using your fingerprint with Apple ID, or replace your access card to a given building by providing authentication using your heartbeat with Bionym. In processing the entire human genome, Genecoin is going much further down this road. Given that DNA is by its very nature the most personal aspect of every person, it is theoretically the best possible authentication tool. Genecoin is offering to provide software that will enable their account holders to extract data relating to their genome – totalling approximately 750 MB – any time they need it. The Genecoin website further assures us that if Bitcoin disappears or is replaced by other cryptocurrency block chains, the company’s decentralised ‘block chain crawlers’ will keep tabs on your genome and make sure it propagates to the new chains.
And there is yet one more step you could take: your DNA could itself be transformed into a cryptocurrency – literally your own personal brand. Genecoin recommends that you use your genome as seed data to create your own ‘altcoin’ – alternative bitcoin. “Altcoins will function like apps or even just personal brands. In the near future, every person will have their own altcoin and small community using it,” predicts the company website, adding: “With Genecoin, your personal brand can become a mechanism for propagating your genetic material.” In fact as with a website enjoying a high Google ranking, the more your ‘currency’ is used, the higher it will rank and the more widely it will be propagated, guaranteeing the – at least digital – longevity of your genome. The Genecoin approach is part of a general trend towards decentralising digitised data, based on a principle similar to decentralised publishing platform Ethereum.