A New Way To Store Information In Molecules For Millions Of Years

  • The new method can use any pliable molecule to write, store, and read data.  
  • It is cheaper and less labor intensive as compared to DNA-based methods.
  • The ‘reading’ averages 20 bits/second while ‘writing’ averages 8 bits/second.
  • The stored information can be retrieved with 99.9% accuracy.

A broad range of technologies — from printing ink on paper to complex electronic, optical and magnetic methods — are used to store data. According to the DOMO’s report, more than 2.5 billion gigabytes of data are generated each day, and it is only going to increase from there.

In recent years, scientists have come up with a chemical-derived way of storing and manipulating mass-data. The concept relies on the ability of cells to store massive amounts of information in molecules (such as carbohydrates, proteins, DNA and RNA) and metabolic networks.

Now researchers at Harvard University have developed a technique to store data in molecules for millions of years. Once written, it uses no energy and lives outside the hackable internet. All you need is data, a chemist and a few cheap molecules.

Using Small Molecules To Encode Data

There exist several techniques to synthesize DNA strands to capture all kinds of information, including cooking videos, diet trends, and documents. Although DNA is far small in size than solid state drives, it is large in the field of biology.

Synthesizing DNA is a repetitive and time-consuming process. Storing information could become a tedious and expensive task if each message is built from scratch.

Therefore, the research team explored an alternative strategy and came up with a new method that uses small molecules (with low molecular weight) to encode data. It relies on conventional techniques used in analytical and organic chemistry.

The new approach is cheaper and less labor intensive as compared to DNA-based methods. With only one synthesis, a sufficient number of small molecules can be produced to encode several videos simultaneously.

In this study, the team selected stable and common peptides named oligopeptides. It consists of 2 to 20 amino acids, and is smaller than DNA and RNA. Mixed together, oligopeptides can be distinguished from one another.

Reference: ACS Central Science | DOI:10.1021/acscentsci.9b00210 | Harvard University 

Researchers were able to ‘write’, ‘store’, and ‘read’ documents and photos. They showed that one byte of data can be stored in a mixture of 8 oligopeptides, four bytes can be stored in 32 oligopeptides, and so on.

Their ‘reading’ averages 20 bits/second while ‘writing’ average 8 bits/second. Moreover, the stored information can be retrieved with 99.9% accuracy. This is far better (cheaper and quicker) than reading/writing with synthetic DNA.

What’s Next?

The reading and writing speeds can be further increased with faster technology. Also, one can use a different set of molecules to enhance storage capacity and stability.

Store Information In MoleculesImage credit: Shutterstock 

Since oligopeptides used in this study are designed for a special purpose, they are quite expensive. In the future, one can purchase cheaper molecule, such as alkanethiols, which would cost only $1 to store 1 billion bits of data.

Under suitable conditions, oligopeptides can maintain their stability for thousands of years. These molecules can live in high heat and drought, and could endure without oxygen or light.

The other molecular data storage system uses one particular molecule, whereas the new method can utilize any pliable molecule that can be molded into distinguishable bits.

Read: Microsoft Has Built A Completely Automated DNA Data Storage

Overall, it’s a corruption-resistant option for next-generation data storage. Even if computers get hacked, books get burn, and Digital Video Discs fail, a molecule full of information could persist for centuries.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is an experienced science and technology journalist interested in machines, AI, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out what his latest project is, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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