Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Thursday, June 10, 1999 Published at 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK


DNA hides spy message

The DNA trace reads "June 6 Invasion: Normandy"

Espionage has embraced biotechnology with the creation of a microdot which conceals secret messages in the immense complexity of human DNA.

The BBC's Sue Nelson: James Bond will need a PhD in molecular biology
Enemies would find the messages "completely undetectable".

The first message sent using the new technique pays tribute to the original photographic microdots used in World War Two. It reads: "June 6 Invasion: Normandy".

"Masterpiece of espionage"

The researchers proved the DNA microdot works by pasting the tiny dots over the full stops in a typed letter, posting it and then analysing the dots when it arrived back. The message was received, loud and clear.

[ image: Spies of the future may need biotechnology expertise]
Spies of the future may need biotechnology expertise
In 1946, J Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, described microdots as "the enemy's masterpiece of espionage".

Catherine Taylor Clelland, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, told BBC News Online that the DNA microdot team had not yet been approached by the FBI.

"But we did wonder if we would get security clearance to have the paper published in the first place," she said.

Catherine Taylor Clelland: Impossible to detect
Dr Taylor Clelland believes that rise of genetic engineering in plants and animals could see another use for the technique: incorporating a genetic "watermark" within the organisms themselves. "It would remove all counterfeiting."

Message in a marker

The first step of the technique is to use a simple code to convert the letters of the alphabet into combinations of the four bases which make up DNA. Next a piece of created.

Next, a piece of DNA spelling out the message is synthetically created. It contains the secret message in the middle, plus short marker sequences at each end.

This is slipped into a normal piece of human DNA.

[ image: Secret messages can now be written in the code of life]
Secret messages can now be written in the code of life
The secret message DNA strand is then mixed with ordinary DNA strands of similar length. The resulting mixture is dried on to paper which can then be cut into tiny dots. Only one strand in every 30 billion contains the message, making finding the message a fiendishly difficult task.

"To try and identify it within that complexity, when all the strands appear absolutely identical would be, we think, virtually impossible," says Dr Taylor Clelland.

The key to unravelling the message is knowing what the markers at each end of the DNA message are. These allow the message recipient to use a standard biotechnology technique, the polymerase chain reaction, to multiply only the DNA which contains the message.

This DNA can then be sequenced and the message read.

The team included Professor Carter Bancroft and Viviana Risca and is published in the journal Nature.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Sci/Tech Contents

Relevant Stories

10 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
Green mice boost genetic engineering

29 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech
Lift off for rival DNA technology

10 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
'Working draft' of human genome by 2000

13 Jan 99 | Sci/Tech
New twist for nanotechnology

Internet Links

Mount Sinai Medical School


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

World's smallest transistor

Scientists join forces to study Arctic ozone

Mathematicians crack big puzzle

From Business
The growing threat of internet fraud

Who watches the pilots?

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer