Can you pass me my external E. coli drive?

If you think you’ve joined the ranks and have become a fellow data hoarder with your stash of several external hard drives and possess the compulsive need to triple-back things up, imagine how the U.S. National Archives feels. They require 800 kilometres of shelving to store their data digitally. The United Kingdom and France require approximately 160 kilometres each.

A group of students at Hong Kong’s Chinese University have modified a strain of E. coli bacteria to be able store and encrypt information. They call it “Biostorage,” and as a result, bacteria will be able to store information for thousands of years, as they constantly reproduce, replenishing the data.
In 2007, a team at Japan’s Keio University were able encode E=MC2, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, onto a piece of DNA found in a common soil bacteria.

The group in Hong Kong has made many advances since that development and are now able to compress and break up data among different cells in the culture, which helps overcome limits on storage capacity. Currently, all sorts of data, such as video, images and audio, can be stored in the bacteria.
The researchers say that one gram of bacteria will be able to hold as much data as 450 two-terabyte hard drives.

Furthermore, the encoded bacteria cannot be hacked like computers and are also not affected by things which can normally bring a database to its knees, such as electrical failures or data theft.

The technique that is used is very similar to that of making a genetically modified organism (such as genetically modified corn) by removing DNA, modifying it with the use of enzymes, then returning it to the cell.

It won’t be long before we see this as a viable storage medium for at home.
Interestingly, this isn’t the only example of E. coli being modified to do fascinating things.

In September 2010, a privately owned biotech company known as Joule Unlimited were awarded a patent for a genetically modified E. coli strain that is able to produce hydrocarbons such as diesel, jet fuel and petrol solely with the consumption of carbon dioxide and sunlight.

The company says that it has a library of bacteria, all capable of producing different fuels. One bacterium can produce ethanol at the rate of 9 litres per square metre a year. Joule says that eventually, when scaled commercially, it could be able to produce 23 litres per square metre a year.

Joule also says that their modified cells can produce fossil fuels using the solar converter method at a rate 50 times more efficient that regular bio fuels, and that their method will also produce 90 per cent less carbon dioxide.

According to their website, “This technology can produce virtually unlimited quantities of fossil fuels with zero dependence on raw materials, agricultural land, crops or fresh water. It ends the hazards of oil exploration and oil production. It takes us to the unthinkable: liquid hydrocarbons on demand.”

The company’s co-founder is George Church, a Harvard geneticist who helped initiate the Human Genome project in 1984.

If you’re thinking that we have entered a strange new world, you may be surprised to learn that modified microorganisms are all around us. If you’ve ever wondered how light beer is made, you’ll be happy to know it’s made with a modified version of yeast. It was in 1994 that the Brewing Research Foundation gained authorization to use such yeast to produce low-carb beer.

The yeast produces an amylase capable of hydrolyzing starch residues found in beer that usually lead to the ever-so-sexy beer gut. The yeast breaks down the starches into a sugar that normal yeast will use in the fermentation process.
Finally, genetically modified microorganisms are also used to produce various chemicals and medications and are much more environmentally friendly when compared to production methods involving harsh chemicals. The list of items that can be produced varies from vitamins to preservatives and enzymes.

On a completely different note, scientists have created a real live Pac-Man game. They call it “Pac-Mecium.” The user manipulates the paramecium using a joystick attached to a controller that “controls the polarity of a mild electrical field applied across the fluid chamber, which influences the direction the paramecia, a single-celled organism, move.”

It leaves me wondering, could it one day be possible for scientists to encrypt data into human cells? This scientific premise makes me think of Quorra, a human computer program hybrid with digital information from Disney’s TRON: Legacy. Scary huh?