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Basic biological molecules used to store data.

Technologies are quickly advancing the way they store information in computers, CDs, DVDs, and even DNA. Despite these advancements, threats as simple as water and as complex as cyber-attacks can still corrupt the records.

Now, a study led by researchers at Harvard develops a new way to store information with the potential to stably house data for millions of years, namely in basic biological molecules. The team states their biocomputing technique lives outside the hackable internet, does not use DNA, and once written, uses no energy.  The opensource study is published in the journal ACS Central Science.

Proteins that store data

Previous studies show molecular data storage is an attractive alternative for dense and durable information storage, which is sorely needed to deal with the growing gap between information production and the ability to store data.

DNA is a clear example of effective data storage in molecular form, however, DNA synthesis requires skilled and often repetitive labor.  The current study develops a technique enabling the storage of information in mixtures of readily available, stable, low-molecular-weight molecules.

The current study utilizes a common, small set of molecules, namely, 32 oligopeptides, to store binary information. Results show this system requires a set of a maximum of eight oligopeptides, as a mixture, in a microwell, to store one byte, and a mixture of 32 oligopeptides to store four bytes, with larger mixtures of oligopeptides enabling the storage of larger sets of data.  Data findings show the encoding, writing, storing, and reading of a total of approximately 400 kilobits in both text and images was achieved.

Results show the data was coded as mixtures of molecules, with greater than 99% recovery of information, written at an average rate of 8 bits/s, and read at a rate of 20 bits/s.  The team states it minimizes the time and difficulty of synthesis of new molecules as seen in DNA computing, and circumvents the challenges of encoding and reading messages in linear macromolecules. 

Using chemistry as a passcode

They go on to add the system can also write faster than DNA is capable of, however, it is slower to read. Indeed, both of these facets could be improved in the future with the use of inkjet printers to write the data and better mass spectrometers to read it.

The team surmises they have developed a biocomputing technique utilizing small, low weight molecules to encode information.  For the future, the researchers state oligopeptides have stabilities of hundreds or thousands of years under suitable conditions. Additionally, unlike the cloud, molecular storage can only be accessed in person using chemistry.

Source: Harvard University News Office

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