E. coli gets a bad rap – probably due to the violent illness it induces – but a group of Chinese University students in Hong Kong have found a novel and potentially reputation-changing use for the bacteria: data storage. The team has devised a way to encrypt and store information in the DNA of bacteria to such an effective degree that they say just one gram of E. coli could store the same amount of data as 450 two-terabyte hard drives.
Biostorage, or the storing of data in living things, is nascent but not new, having been around for about a decade. But earlier efforts at encoding data into DNA have been incremental – for instance, a few years back a team of Japanese researchers encoded Einstein’s relativity equation into the DNA of bacteria, demonstrating that it was possible but otherwise not pushing the field forward.
Three years later the strides taken by the Hong Kong team are far more significant, showing that not only text but also images, music, and video can be stored within cells. The team devised a means of compressing data into chunks that can be placed in different cells and mapped so that it can be easily located later, much as CPUs chop and store data in fragments. They’ve even developed a three-tier security system that allows them to encrypt the data in an unhackable way, making data stored on their bacterial systems impervious to cyber threats.
In theory, bacterial biostorage systems could hold vast amounts of data in very small spaces, and since the bacteria keep replicating they could feasibly store data reliably for millennia. But the applications don’t end there; the team is exploring ways their techniques could be used to encode extra information into organisms like genetically modified crops to create a sort of “bio barcode” that would identify the provenance of a certain strain of GM vegetable or help track the spread of certain GM crops designs.