Bacteria could help future drives hold terabytes of data

Brisbane (Australia) - A Harvard Medical School professor claims that proteins from murky marshes could form the basis for higher capacity storage devices. Professor Venkatesan Renugopalakrishnan says proteins from the membrane of a salt marsh bacterium can be genetically altered to store data at areal densities of up to 50 terabits per square inch. After being hit with light, the proteins produce pigment molecules that can be later read with lasers or optical microscopes.

Halobacterium salinarum is the bacteria in question, and it produces a protein called bacteriorhodopsin, abbreviated bR. Like other microbes and algae, bR can convert sunlight and into chemical energy. During the conversion, the proteins make intermediate molecules whose pigment could, Prof. Renugopalakrishnan believes, could be leveraged for storing information.

According to Renugopalakrishnan's conference abstract, his protein storage technology is aimed at magnetic drives, rather than optical DVDs. He says his bR proteins are still stable when packed closer than 3 nm, while magnetic media becomes unstable at that distance. In addition, Renugopalakrishnan claims bR proteins have a faster response time and will be able to sustain a higher data transfer rate than magnetic hard drives.

Unfortunately, the natural proteins produce pigment that only lasts for a few hours to a few days - meaning data is erased by nature quite quickly. However, Renugopalakrishnan has genetically altered bR's DNA to make the pigment last several years.

As with all theoretical advances in technology, there are several real-life hurdles to overcome before the product can be commercially available. The first and possibly the biggest challenge is getting the proteins to stick on the platters. Professor Renugopalakrishnan also has not found a read/write head for the proteins.