Data storage

Harvard’s new data storage is for dye, avoids DNA storage pitfalls

The explosion of data collection has led to difficulties in storing huge amounts of data. This is especially true for archival data, with many popular methods of data storage, such as optical discs, having relatively short lifespans in the grand scheme of things. Researchers are exploring a myriad of ways to solve this problem, ranging from DNA-based data storage to Microsoft’s quartz-based Project Silica. Now, a team of Harvard researchers is introducing a new contender for long-term data storage: the dye.

How it works

Essentially, the method works as follows: a specialized inkjet is used to deposit a mixture of commercially available dyes of different colors onto an epoxy base. These colors and combinations of colorants can thus serve as a code for characters, where the presence of each colorant constitutes a “1” (as opposed to its absence, a “0”). The deposited dyes can then be read by a fluorescence microscope.

An illustration of how the presence and absence of different colorants can be used to encode digital information. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the researchers.

Dye-based storage is a form of molecular storage (like DNA storage), which provides stability over thousands of years and exceptional information density with no associated energy consumption. But unlike DNA storage or similar molecular storage methods, this dye-based data storage requires no complicated molecular synthesis to encode and requires no complicated sequencing to decode.

Of course, dye-based storage is much denser than, say, depositing dye drops with a pipette. The researchers were able to write about 14 KB of information on a 7.2 mm square area, a density of 271.5 bytes per square millimeter on an area a little smaller than a pea. The researchers were able to write this information at a rate of 58 KB per second and, perhaps more importantly, they were also able to read it quickly. Additionally, this data read was performed more than 1000 times without significant loss of signal strength.

“This approach enables information storage with high density, fast read/write speeds, and multiple reads of a single set of molecules without loss of information, all at an acceptable cost,” the researchers wrote. .

“What is beautiful is its simplicity,” said Robert Grass, a chemical engineer at ETH Zürich, in an interview with Chemistry and Engineering News. “Our world needs a lot of data. It is important that we continue to research new technologies with unique data transport capabilities, as there is no single solution for data storage. »

Researchers developed this technology to store non-ASCII data, successfully converting a 3 KB .jpg image of Michael Faraday into a string and printing that string through dye. However, the researchers stated that “the quality of the recovered data is much more error-prone than when in a lossless image encoding format.”

The researchers are also commercializing this technology through a startup called Datacule which, according to the Harvard Crimsonis working on the development of an end-to-end prototype capable of both printing and reading dye-encoded data.

“We’ve cleared the first hurdle, which is to develop technology that works – and there’s no question that it works, that it has some advantages,” Whitesides said in an interview with the crimson. “The second hurdle is, does anyone care? We have yet to answer that, and the company will.

What’s New with DNA Data Storage

DNA data storage, of course, has a much longer history, dating back decades of research and (so far, unsuccessful) attempts to scale it up for commercialization. However, the past few years have been particularly busy for technology: in 2020, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin encoded a book in DNA and successfully retrieved it despite common errors in DNA storage; last April, the Los Alamos National Laboratory developed a binary-DNA translator; and just a few months ago, a team from the Georgia Tech Research Institute announced the development of a microchip that could quickly and inexpensively grow DNA strands for high density data storage.

The DNA Data Storage Alliance, meanwhile, has been working since 2020 to advance the field, working with powerful members like Microsoft, Western Digital, Illumina, and Twist Bioscience to advance DNA-based storage. Last month, the alliance admitted a new member: eureKARE, an investment firm focused on next-generation biotechnology companies in synthetic biology and microbiome sciences.

“It is clear to us that digital data storage is a major challenge for our generation and one that we hope to address by investing in DNA data storage approaches,” eureKARE Chief Commercial Officer Kristin Thompson said when the company joined the Alliance. “DNA is a wonderful and environmentally friendly solution to this problem due to its extremely dense nature. Market demand for a durable and inexpensive approach, such as storing DNA data, is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. years and this technology really has the ability to revolutionize our lives.

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