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Using Bacteria to Store Data

Unless you've been living under a rock, you're probably well aware of the seemingly endless race to come up with the next big innovation in data storage. From solid state drives to storing data in crystals, we've certainly come a long way from the archaic methods of the past. However, a new advancement in data storage technology might very well change the way we approach the concept of data storage from this point forward.

Data Storage and Live Bacteria

An advanced team of scientists with Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, recently released their research into data storage via living bacterial cells. Their report, which was published in the Science Journal, highlighted the principles behind the concept.

For all intents and purposes, the team was able to copy computer code into the actual DNA of live bacteria. Moreover, the bacteria transmits this data to their cellular offspring in a sort of living archival process. Perhaps even more surprising, however, is the type of bacteria that was used: E. coli.

Jeff Nivala, co-leader of the scientific team, explained the process in a recent interview with Gizmodo. He was quoted as saying: "We write the information directly into the genome. While the overall amount of DNA data we have currently stored within a genome is relatively small compared to the completely synthetic DNA data storage systems, we think genome-based information storage has many potential advantages."

While the initial tests are considered highly successful, the storage capacity of these bacterial cells is still rather limited. Nonetheless, researchers were able to store anywhere from 30 to 100 bytes of digital information within the E. Coli cells, which is a marked improvement from the types of synthetic DNA that has been used in prior tests.

Nivala continued touting the importance of the recent breakthrough by stating: "These experiments lay the foundations for a recording system that could be used to monitor molecular events that occur over long time periods. For instance, it could eventually help us answer questions like what happens to the gene regulation inside a cell as it goes from a healthy to disease state. Or it could also be used to record information on the cell's outside environment, for example the presence of specific chemicals, toxins, or pathogens."

Introducing CRISPR

A highly advanced concept to say the least, the whole experiment was made possible through a gene-editing project known as CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat. In use since the 1980s, CRISPR is a platform used in double strand breaking during certain gene-editing processes. While highly revolutionary, CRISPR isn't without its flaws. The scientific team with Harvard testing various other types of bacteria, many of which weren't capable of containing any data whatsoever.

The Future of Bacterial Storage

While a storage capacity of 100 bytes won't be enough to replace modern hard drives of today, the recent tests at Harvard University certainly prove the concept. Although bacterial storage still has a long way to go, it may become a viable alternative to disk-based storage in the future.


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