In January of 2015 during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the European Bioinformatics Institute’s Nick Goldman issued a challenge: the first person to sequence and decode a sample of Bitcoin-encoded DNA within three years would win an intriguing prize: a bitcoin. So who cracked the code and claimed the prize? A PhD student.
An Unusual Prize
Said Goldman at the time, “Bitcoin is a form of money that now only exists on computers, and with cryptography, that's something we can easily store in DNA. 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."
While the prize was worth just $200 when the challenge launched, the value has since skyrocketed to more than 50 times that amount.
A Last-Minute Victory
With the deadline looming, Goldman tweeted a reminder, which caught the eye of Flemish microbiology PhD student Sander Wuyts. Reveals Wuyts on his blog, “When I read [that tweet], I goes without saying that I was extremely enthusiastic. I still remember myself announcing to all of my colleagues that we should drop everything we’re doing and start solving this challenge.”
The rest is history: Wuyts asked Goldman for a sample, decoded the DNA, and successfully claimed the Bitcoin.
He explains, “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 realized 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."
Wuyts’ plans for the Bitcoin? To cash out, fund research and thank the people with whom he’d collaborated. More important than the money, he says? Resolving doubts he had about the feasibility of DNA technology. “I have a new perspective on DNA which might come in handy in my future research,” Wuyts insists.