DNA has long been an attractive target as a medium for storing computer data: DNA can store 1,000 times as much information in the same space as a computer’s hard drive – about 10 full-length movies in a space the size of a grain of salt – and, unlike hard drives, DNA is a technology unlikely to be made obsolete by a new one.
Past attempts to store data in DNA involved converting the data’s strings of ones and zeros into a pattern of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, the four compounds that comprise DNA. Then a machine called a DNA synthesizer stitched together sequences of the four compounds to embody the specified pattern of chemicals and weave them into actual DNA strands.
Not very practical: all that is time-consuming as well as expensive, costing thousands of dollars to translate a small amount of data.
Now researchers at Columbia University figured out a way to store data in living bacteria by inserting genes that respond to an electrical charge. The genes could be considered similar to the memory bits in a chip that switch from one to zero or back again when a voltage passes through.
After inserting the genes and passing a charge through them, the scientists were able to open up and read their message by sequencing the bacteria’s genes.
Also, the data can be preserved as one generation of bacteria passes its genes to the next, although genes can mutate over time.
As an early test, the scientists were able to program a bacterium so that sequencing its genome spelled out “hello, world,” often the first phrase programmed by people learning to code.
TRENDPOST: The Columbia scientists have opened a path toward faster, cheaper data storage in living organisms, although neither the timeline nor ethical questions involved have been formulated. The breakthrough lets researchers think more broadly about possible synergies among living organisms, computers, and data.

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