A technique for encryption/ compression/decryption of data and the use of bacteria as a secure storage device was successfully produced by a team of Chinese biochemistry students as an alternative solution for storing electronic data.
A team of instructors and students of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) have managed to store enormous amounts of data in bacteria. The system is based on a novel cryptographic system for data encoding and the application of a compression algorithm which reduces its size dramatically. Following the reduction in size, the researchers were able to enter the information into bacteria in the form of modified DNA sequences.
They used the DH5-alpha strain of Escherichia coli, a bacterium normally found in the intestines of most animals. This bacterium is often used as a model organism in microbiology and biotechnology. Modified E. coli has also been used in bioengineering for the development of vaccines, bio-remediation and the production of certain enzymes. Two research groups have already conducted unsuccessful experiments in 2001 and 2007 aiming to the use of biological systems as data storage devices.
The researchers of the Chinese University of Hong Kong used encoded E. coli plasmid DNA (a molecule of DNA usually present in bacteria that replicate independently of chromosomal DNA) to encrypt the data and store it in the bacteria. Then, by using a novel information processing system they were able to reconstruct and recover the data with error checking. Another advantage of the system is that the bacteria cells abundantly replicate the data storage units thereby ensuring the integrity and permanence of the data by redundancy.
Based on the procedures tested, they estimate the ability to store about 900000 gigabytes (GB) in one gram of bacteria cells. That is the equivalent of 450 hard drives, each with the capacity of 2 terabytes (2000 GB).
Several "traditional" data storage devices. The one with the largest storage capacity in this group is the portable hard-drive (320 GB). One gram of bacteria cells can store 900000 GB.
As an example of the potential for storage they explain that the text of the Declaration of Independence of the United States (8047 characters) could be stored in just 18 bacteria cells. One gram of bacteria cells contains approximately 10 million cells.
"We believe this could be an industry standard for large-scale manipulation of data storage in living cells" said the researchers responsible for the project on their website where they describe the potential of data bio-encryption and storage.
The researchers envision a wide range of applications for this technology. The capabilities of what they describe as a “bio-hard-disk” include the storage of text, images, music and even movies, or the insertion of barcodes into synthetic organisms as part of security protocols to discriminate between synthetic and natural organisms.
The team of researchers was integrated by 3 instructors and 10 undergraduate biochemistry students of CUHK. They carried out their study as part of a worldwide Synthetic Biology competition called The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) of the USA. The CUHK team obtained a gold award in the iGEM competition. “Biology students learn engineering approaches and tools to organize, model, and assemble complex systems, while engineering students are able to immerse themselves in applied molecular biology.”declared iGEM organizers.
The iGEM competition started in 2003. The 2010 version included over 1,900 participants in 138 teams from around the world. They were required to specify, design, build, and test simple biological systems made from standard, interchangeable biological parts. The achievements of the iGEM research teams often lead to important advances in medicine, energy, biotechnology and the environment.