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Scientists Store, Retrieve Digital Photos In Tiny Molecules Used For Metabolism

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The world may soon run out of materials to store the data constantly being produced. As a new system of encoding and retrieving data, scientists are exploring the use of molecules, such as DNA and even much smaller molecules.  ( Michael Schwarzenberger | Pixabay )

Loading huge amounts of data in small spaces isn't new, but scientists want to get much smaller than compact thumb drives with molecular data storage.

Previous research has shown that DNA molecules can be used as engineered data storage devices. Now, researchers from Brown University are proving that smaller, simpler molecules such as metabolites can also be used for this purpose.

Findings of a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE reveal that it's possible to encode and retrieve kilobyte-scale image files in artificial metabolomes solutions containing sugars, amino acids, and other small molecules.

"This is a proof-of-concept that we hope makes people think about using wider ranges of molecules to store information," said study author and Brown's School of Engineering professor Jacob Rosenstein in a statement. "In some situations, small molecules like the ones we used here can have even greater information density than DNA."

Tiny Metabolites Successfully Used For Data Storage

For the study, the authors wanted to find out whether data storage is possible with an artificial metabolome, which is known in biology as a complete set of molecules used in the regulation of metabolism.

To accomplish this, they put together artificial metabolomes using different liquid mixtures of molecules. The presence or absence of a specific metabolite in a mixture encodes a single bit of digital data (a zero or a one), while the number of molecule types in the metabolome determines how many bits it can hold. For their experiments, the research team created mixtures of six and 12 metabolites, so each metabolome could contain six or 12 bits.

Thousands of these mixtures were put together on small metal plates in the form of nanoliter-sized droplets, which held and were arranged to encode the data. Afterward, the plates were dried, each one showing miniscule spots metabolite molecules that each contain digital information. A mass spectrometer is used to read the data.

With this technique, the study authors were able to encode and retrieve various image files up to 2 kilobytes.

The Future Of Molecular Data Storage

Rosenstein explained that one of the advantages of metabolites is that they react to each other to form new compounds. This opens up the possibility of not only data storage, but also of data manipulation and computations within metabolite mixtures.

As the data produced by the world grows and grows, the need for data storage capacity also increases exponentially. Eventually, scientists predict that the Earth may not have enough chip-grade silicon for semiconductor chips to store all the data being produced. New information systems are critical in the future-the smaller, the better.

"Using molecules for computation is a tremendous opportunity, and we are only starting to figure out how to take advantage of it," said study coauthor and Brown assistant professor of chemistry Brenda Rubenstein.

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