Students at Hong Kong’s Chinese University may be onto a type of memory media that could be a truly secure way to store data — text, images, music, and video. It takes up almost no space, can be encrypted, and is so gross that it’s unlikely many people would attempt to steal it. That is, if the thief would even consider searching a refrigerator for massive data storage inside E. Coli— the bacteria responsible for 90% of urinary tract infections, which can cause food poisoning and is the reason for many food recalls. The bacteria can successfully and securely be used for biostorage, the storage of data in living things.
According to an AFP report, the U.S. national archives take up more than 500 miles of shelves, but one gram of bacteria used for storing data could hold the same amount of information as 450 hard drives with 2,000 gigabytes (2 TB) each of storage capacity.
“This means you will be able to keep large datasets for the long term in a box of bacteria in the refrigerator,” said student instructor Aldrin Yim about the biostorage project. Also according to Discovery News, another student instructor, Allen Yu said, “Bacteria can’t be hacked. All kinds of computers are vulnerable to electrical failures or data theft. But bacteria are immune from cyber attacks. You can safeguard the information.”
Student researchers spent 10 months developing the project from scratch,reported their professor Chan King-ming. The team of 11 students from the Biochemistry program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong were the 2010 gold medalist in MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The students describe their bioencryption project as turning fantasy into reality and even coined a new term of biocryptography. These students report having high expectations for the future of a biocomputer; “we believe this could be an industrial standard in handling large scale data storage in living cells.”
Hardy strains of bacteria can be found everywhere. One type of bacteria can even survive nuclear radiation. The Hong Kong team checks against a master database to make sure their manipulations have no toxic effects. The biological cryptography could protect from information leakage and, as Hong Kong University stated, herald in a new era of information security.
The student researchers developed a method to overcome storage capacity limitations by compressing the data, splitting it into chunks and distributing it between different bacteria cells. The Declaration of Independence can be stored in 18 bacteria cells. You can try out the team’s modeling demonstrationthat simulates the required minimum number of bacteria it would take to store your inputted text message.
In a post-WikiLeaks world, could security professionals latch onto securely storing data in bacteria cells and mapping the DNA to easily locate specific information? Although a Petri dish PC may not be anywhere close to market-ready, there may come a day when we want bacteria in our computers.