Researchers Store Data in Bacteria

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Ten years ago futurists predicted that one day data would be stored in living organisms like bacteria. They picked 2020 as the date the feat would be accomplished.

They were only off by ten years.

During late 2010, a team of biochemistry students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong School (CUHK) of Life Sciences stored data in a most unlikely spot: the E.coli bacterium.

It's a world first and 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 2010 gold medalist in MIT's prestigious iGEM competition, Yim is currently working as a student instructor and part of CUHK's intensive biostorage project.

According to physorg.com, America's national archives fill more than 500 miles of shelves, while those in the UK take up 100 miles shelf space.

Yet soon all that data contained in all that space may be efficiently stored in living bacteria colonies happily living in a petri dish. And because bacteria continuously reproduce, a team in Japan has claimed information stored in such a manner might last more than 1,000 years.

Einstein and the bacterium

That same team of researchers in Japan accomplished their own milestone in 2007 when they successfully encoded Einstein's relativity equation—the famous E=MC²—in the DNA of a live bacterium.

Einstein once remarked that God doesn't play dice with the universe, but perhaps God plays for bigger stakes with data storage as the rudimentary steps being taken to code date into living cells has the potential to become a trillion dollar industry.

The technology of storing hard data in living things was dismissed as science fiction by skeptics who scoffed at the idea just a handful of years ago.

Now the technology has been demonstrated to work.

A new compression and architecture

The student researchers have taken a giant step past the initial accomplishments of the Japanese team. They've found ways to store much more complex data by creating a new methodology that permits the compression of information. After compression, the data is fragmented and stored among a multitude of cells. By doing that they created an internal file system that immediately overcame the hurdle of data storage capacity.

Like any good computer file system, the Hong Kong team also mapped the DNA molecules to permit ease of data retrieval.

It not only functions as they hoped, it also opens the floodgates for storage of everything from text and graphics to storage intensive data for video and music.

Data security is no problem either. Bacteria storage is the most secure in the world. "Bacteria can't be hacked," Allen Yu, is quoted by physorg.com.

Yu, one of the university student instructors that worked on the project, sees a big future for organic data storage. "All kinds of computers are vulnerable to electrical failures or data theft," he explained. "But bacteria are immune from cyberattacks. You can safeguard the information."

Security experts agree, when the software and data storage is contained in living tissue, hacking into that is a technology that doesn't exist yet. But with other futurists warning that someday a way may be found of literally hacking into a person's brain, the security inherent in organic data storage may not remain secure forever.


Beyond the advantages of security and almost limitless data storage, the space needed to contain all the data is exceedingly small. The university team claims that just one gram of bacteria can theoretically store as much as 450 2,000 gigabyte hard disks.

And the utilization of organisms for data storage lends itself to additional safeguards against it being copied or stolen. The students call it biocryptography and believe that cybersecurity experts will flock to it in the years ahead.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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