Researchers have stored data inside a molecular thumb drive

Researchers at Brown University have announced that they have made a big step towards molecular storage systems that can hold huge amounts of data inside tiny spaces. The team has demonstrated that it is possible to store image files in solutions of common biological small molecules. Scientists are putting lots of effort into creating data storage devices using DNA that can hold vastly more data than current hard drives.

The researchers at Brown showed that DNA isn't the only possibility for storing large amounts of data. Brown's team showed that data can be stored and retrieved from artificial metabolomes, which are arrays of liquid mixtures that contain sugars, amino acids, and other types of small molecules.

The team encoded kilobyte-scale image files into metabolite solutions and read the file information out again. The proof-of-concept is hoped to show that a wider range of molecules can be used to store information. One possible advantage to using the new molecules is that many metabolites can react with each other to form other new compounds.

The new research opens the door to molecular systems that can store data and manipulate it by performing computations in the metabolite mixture. The team assembled their own artificial metabolomes for the experiment, and the presence or absence of a particular metabolite in the mixture encoded one bit of digital data, the binary zero or one.

The number of molecule types in the artificial metabolome determines the number of bits each mixture can hold. The team created libraries of six and 12 metabolites for their experiment. The mixture was laid out on small plates in nanoliter-size droplets using a precision robot. The liquid is dried, and the data is retrieved using a mass spectrometer to decode the data. The process was successful in saving and retrieving a variety of images up to 2kb in size.