Mon, Jan 10, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: HK researchers make breakthrough in biostorage


The US national archives occupy more than 800km of shelving; France’s archives stretch for more than 16km of shelves, as do Britain’s.

Yet a group of students at Hong Kong’s Chinese University are making strides toward storing such vast amounts of information in an unexpected home: the E coli bacterium, better known as a potential source of serious food poisoning.

“This 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 student instructor on the university’s biostorage project, a gold medallist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) prestigious iGEM competition last year.

Biostorage — the art of storing and encrypting information in living organisms — is a young field, having existed for about a decade.

In 2007, a team at Japan’s Keio University said they had successfully encoded the equation that represents Einstein’s theory of relativity, E=mc2, in the DNA of a common soil bacterium.

The Hong Kong researchers have leaped beyond this early step, developing methods to store more complex data and starting to overcome practical problems, which has lent weight to skeptics who see the method as science fiction.

The group has developed a method of compressing data, splitting it into chunks and distributing it between different bacterial cells, which helps to overcome limits on storage capacity. They are also able to “map” the DNA so -information can be easily located.

This opens up the way to storing not only text, but images, music, and even video within cells.

As a storage method it is extremely compact — because each cell is minuscule, the group says that one gram of bacteria could store the same amount of information as 450 2,000 gigabyte hard disks.

They have also developed a three-tier security fence to encode the data, which may come as welcome news to US diplomats who have seen their thoughts splashed over the Internet thanks to WikiLeaks.

“Bacteria can’t be hacked,” says Allen Yu, another student instructor. “All kinds of computers are vulnerable to electrical failures or data theft, but bacteria are immune from cyber-attacks. You can safeguard the information.”

The team have even coined a word for this field — biocryptography — and the encoding mechanism contains built-in checks to ensure that mutations in some bacterial cells do not corrupt the data as a whole.

Professor Chan Ting Fung, who supervised the student team, said that practical work in the field — fostered by MIT, which has helped develop standards enabling researchers to collaborate — was in its early stages.

“What the students did was to try it out and make sure some of the fundamental principles are actually achievable,” he added.

The Hong Kong group’s work may have a more immediate application.

The techniques they use — removing DNA from bacterial cells, manipulating them using enzymes and returning them to a new cell — are similar to those used to create genetically modified foods.

However, rather than changing the building blocks of an organism, the Hong Kong group allows extra information to piggyback on the DNA of the cell, after checking their changes against a master database to make sure they do not have accidental toxic effects.

Their work could enable extra information to be added to a -genetically modified crop in the form of a “bio barcode,” Chan said.

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