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E Coli-Based Hard Drives On The Way?

January 10, 2011

E. coli bacteria, a well-known source of food poisoning, are being researched by students at Hong Kong’s Chinese University as a computer memory media.

Biostorage — the art of storing and encrypting information in living organisms — is a young field, having pnly existed for about a decade.

“This means you will be able to keep large datasets for the long term in a box of bacteria in the refrigerator,” said Aldrin Yim, a student instructor on the university’s biostorage project, and a 2010 gold medalist in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), a premiere undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition.

According to an AFP report, the students at Hong Kong’s Chinese University have developed a method of compressing data, splitting it into chunks and distributing it between different bacterial cells, which helps to overcome limits on storage capacity. They are also able to “map” the DNA so information can be easily located.

This opens up the way to storing not only text, but images, music, and even video within cells.

As a storage method it is extremely compact — because each cell is minuscule, the group says that one gram of bacteria could store the same amount of information as 450 2,000 gigabyte hard disks.

They have also developed a three-tier security fence to encode the data, “Bacteria can’t be hacked,” points out Allen Yu, a student instructor. “All kinds of computers are vulnerable to electrical failures or data theft. But bacteria are immune from cyber attacks. You can safeguard the information.”

Biocryptography is the word the group has coined and the encoding mechanism contains built-in checks to ensure that mutations in some bacterial cells do not corrupt the data as a whole. Professor Chan Ting Fung, who supervised the student team, told AFP that practical work in the field — fostered by MIT, who have helped develop standards enabling researchers to collaborate — was in its early stages.

A team at Japan’s Keio University announced in 2007 that they had successfully encoded the equation that represents Einstein’s theory of relativity, E=MC2, in the DNA of a common soil bacterium. They pointed out that because bacteria constantly reproduce, a group of the single-celled organisms could store a piece of information for thousands of years.

But the Hong Kong researchers have leapt beyond this early step, creating ways to store more complex data and are starting to overcome practical problems which have lent weight to skeptics who see the method as science fiction.

Their work could enable extra information to be added to a genetically modified crop in the form of a “bio-barcode”, Chan said. “For example, a company that makes a genetically modified (GM) tomato that grows extra large with a gene that promotes growth — on top of that we can actually encode additional information like safety protocols, things that are not directly related to the biological system.”

Other types of information, like copyright and design history, could help to monitor the spread of GM crops, he said. “It’s kind of a safety net for synthetic organisms,” said Wong Kit Ying, from the student team. Beyond this, Chan and the students are evangelical about the future possibilities of synthetic biology.

“Bacteria are everywhere: they can survive on things that are unthinkable to humans. So we can make use of this,” Chan said. So is it possible that a home computer could one day consist of a dish filled with micro-organisms?

The group dismisses concerns that this could be dangerous, pointing out that despite E. coli’s poor reputation, they use an altered form that cannot exist outside a rich synthetic medium.

Image Caption: Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Each individual bacterium is oblong shaped. Photo by Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU.

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