August 4, 2017

Researchers at Harvard have inserted images into the DNA of a living bacteria to demonstrate the possibilities for long-term data storage. Storing digital information in a molecule that is invisible to the naked eye could be the future of data storage.

While all of our family photos, music and movies currently need to be stored on physical devices, researchers hope that one day you will be able to store your data by embedding it into your skin. To test this idea, the researchers used CRISPR, a gene-editing system, and inserted a short animated image (GIF) into the genomes of living Escherichia coli bacteria. They took each individual pixel and converted them into nucleotides.

The researchers inserted the GIF into in the bacteria in five frames and then were able to retrieve it by sequencing the bacterial DNA and reading the nucleotide code. This experiment worked with 90 percent accuracy, although it is specific to bacteria.

IEEE Life Fellow and 2017 IEEE Medal of Honor recipient Kees Schouhamer Immink explains, “Imagine that you could store the whole Internet in a device as large as a pint of beer. Impossible? DNA-based storage has the potential to realize this in practice due to its unique features of density and durability. Surely, there are some planning problems to be tackled, but both the DNA potential and the need for low-cost storage are so huge, these challenges are sure to be met.”

Other scientists have researched DNA for storage because it can still be sequenced after hundreds of years. They used synthetic DNA instead of living cells for the sake of longevity as living cells are always changing or dying off, making it a challenge to host data. Using living bacteria is better protection for data because it can thrive in high temperature environments or even after nuclear exposure.  


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