Store Digital data with live bacteria

A research team said this week it had developed a technology for storing digital data in the DNA of bacteria, which unlike most living organisms can survive for millennia in the right conditions.

Japanese researchers have successfully stored messages in the DNA of bacteria. The hardiness of the hay bacillus bacteria ensures the digital data encoded into them can last for millenia.

Generally found in soil or decaying matter, hay bacillus are exceptionally resistant to extreme weather conditions. Two megabits (data equivalent to 1.6 million Roman letters) can be stored in each bacterium of hay bacillus in the form of implants. These tiny implants can be extracted in a lab and read like ordinary text at a later date.

Each hay bacillus bacterium can store two megabits — the equivalent of 1.6 million Roman letters. The scientists can take out the microscopic implants in a laboratory and read them so they appear as ordinary text.

The team at Keio University’s Institute for Advanced Biosciences said the technology needs to be perfected but that it was optimistic about its future uses.

“If I wanted to store my personal diary in these live bacteria and take it with me to my grave, then my story can live for thousands and thousands of years,” head researcher Yoshiaki Ohashi said with a laugh.

In practical terms, the technology could eventually benefit companies such as pharmaceutical makers which want to “stamp” their brand.

“In doing so, the company can detect piracy and protect its patent. They can also store information at one specific area of the gene and retrieve it from there,” Ohashi said.

The researchers insert the data at four different places so even if one is disrupted, there would be backup.

But the team said they still needed to work before the technology could go on the market. In particular, the scientists need to ensure that the DNA will not be altered as live bacteria naturally evolve.

Hay bacillus bacteria are generally found in soil or decaying matter and are especially resistant to extreme weather.

One of the practical applications of this technology lies in the area of pharmaceuticals. Fraudulent drugs are a major problem but if pharmaceutical companies could “stamp” their signature into the drugs, it would prevent piracy and at the same time protect their patents. To prevent corruption of the message encoding, the data would be inserted into 4 different places as multiple backups.
The bacteria’s hardiness and ability to preserve data for future generations would also be extremely useful in storing vast amounts of data which would not be suspectible to the types of damage that wipe out computer hard drives. Information stored on DNA lasts for more than one hundred million years.

The researchers project being able to develop a type of living memory for a new breed of organic computers which would use strands of DNA to perform calculations and would have the ability to heal themselves if damaged.

Though the promise of this technology is very high, the scientists caution more work is needed before it can be marketed. One of the hurdles to overcome is ensuring very slow mutation rates in the DNA as the bacteria evolve, otherwise the messages encoded will be rendered unreadable.

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