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Genecoin: DNA for the Blockchain

While it’s a common refrain in the Bitcoin universe that the Blockchain will have countless uses for the storage and management of scarcity in our lives, it’s still a field that’s just starting to deliver on this promise. Enter Genecoin, a newcomer in the Bitcoin space that seeks to fulfill an unlikely spot in our Blockchain future: the encoding and storage of who we are. Despite its name, Genecoin is not a crypto currency or a counterparty asset. Genecoin is the name of a nascent company run by a group of anonymous bitcoiners based in a undisclosed location in the United States’ northeast coast. The members of Genecoin are offering a simple proposition to the Bitcoin universe: to populate the Bitcoin Blockchain with the sequenced DNA of its customers.

Genecoin is still in its earliest stages of existence, and is not bashful about letting its audience know that the company is just in its beginning stages. The price list is still open ended, and the web site is quick to note that “We’re Gauging Market Interest.” However, the principles have clearly received a lot of attention in a very short time, and seem committed to the goal of servicing their first customers. For potential customers, the Genecoin process will start by connecting a client with a gene sequencing lab. This lab will send a saliva collection kit via the US mail, along with instructions to the user on how to collect their saliva using the provided hardware. Once collected, the user sends the sample back to the lab, via the postal service, where the sample is processed and sequenced. After sequencing, the results will be sent to Genecoin, where they are then to be persisted onto the Bitcoin Blockchain. Though there are many companies offering their customers gene sequencing services, it’s the Blockchain persistence that separates Genecoin from the competition.

Amongst the many technical challenges that Genecoin is openly addressing is just how to store this DNA data using Bitcoin. Given that your typical human’s unencrypted DNA takes up approximately 750 MiB of data, storage of this data in full, on the Blockchain, would be significantly cost prohibitive. However, Genecoin is quick to point out that much of this data is redundant between humans, and that this size can be drastically reduced by merely encoding the ‘differences’ amongst a single human’s DNA from those of a reference model. Such an encoding would require off-chain data be used for reference, and Genecoin is exploring various ways of referencing this data in a decentralized capacity. In addition to the considerations surrounding space efficiency, Genecoin is actively exploring mechanisms to encrypt the storage of one’s DNA on the Blockchain as well. After all, just because one wants their data to persist forever, doesn’t mean they want everyone privy to it. Options for latter decryption would include time-lock, and oracle-based decryption schemes.

So, why would anyone want to encode their DNA on the Blockchain? Like much in the crypto space, some projects are a solution in search of a problem. However, one easy reason to use the blockchain to store DNA would be as a replacement for a traditional ‘Birth Certificate.’ Notarization has long been a function provided by the Bitcoin Blockchain, so to ‘notarize’ the existence of a person’s DNA could attest to the existence of an identity, and its age. This attestation would thereafter function in the much the same way as does our current oracle-based (hospital-centric) system. Additionally, for those thinking of the far off future, another fanciful notion might be to encode one’s DNA for the purposes of cloning by a future generation. If that sounds a bit too far-fetched, well, just remember that decentralized currencies were once a far-fetched idea as well.

Regardless of where Genecoin and the DNA sequencing market goes from here, there’s a number of wonderful questions being asked and answered around the Genecoin project. Does the Blockchain have value? What’s the best way to store data so that it will survive the eons? How will the Blockchain find a use outside of the traditional confines of the financial space? These questions will be answered in enough time, but one answer that’s immediately obvious for many in the Bitcoin community, and hopefully to be obvious for others in the biology community: the Blockchain has many uses above and beyond just the storage of balances on a ledger.

Chris DeRose

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