Nav: Home

Researchers report progress on molecular data storage system

February 04, 2020

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] -- A team of Brown University researchers has made substantial progress in an effort to create a new type of molecular data storage system.

In a study published in Nature Communications, the team stored a variety of image files -- a Picasso drawing, an image of the Egyptian god Anubis and others -- in arrays of mixtures containing custom-synthesized small molecules. In all, the researchers stored more than 200 kilobytes of data, which they say is the most stored to date using small molecules. That's not a lot of data compared to traditional means of storage, but it is significant progress in terms of small molecule storage, the researchers say.

"I think this is a substantial step forward," said Jacob Rosenstein, an assistant professor in Brown's School of Engineering and an author of the study. "The large numbers of unique small molecules, the amount of data we can store, and the reliability of the data readout shows real promise for scaling this up even further."

As the data universe continues to expand, much work is being done to find new and more compact means of storage. By encoding data in molecules, it may be possible to store the equivalent of terabytes of data in just a few millimeters of space. Most research on molecular storage has focused on long-chain polymers like DNA, which are well known carriers of biological data. But there are potential advantages to using small molecules as opposed to long polymers. Small molecules are potentially easier and cheaper to produce than synthetic DNA, and in theory have an even higher storage capacity.

The Brown research team, supported by a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant led by chemistry professor Brenda Rubenstein, has been working to find ways of making small-molecule data storage feasible and scalable.

To store data, the team uses small metal plates arrayed with 1,500 tiny spots less than a millimeter in diameter. Each spot contains a mixture of molecules. The presence or absence of different molecules in each mixture indicate the digital data. The number of bits in each mixture can be as large as the library of distinct molecules available for mixing. The data can then be read out using a mass spectrometer, which can identify the molecules present in each well.

In a paper published last year, the Brown team showed that they could store image files in the kilobyte range using some common metabolites, the molecules that organisms use to regulate metabolism. For this new work, the researchers were able to vastly expand the size of their library -- and thereby the sizes of the files they could encode -- by synthesizing their own molecules.

The team made their molecules using Ugi reactions -- a technique often used in the pharmaceutical industry to quickly produce large numbers of different compounds. Ugi reactions combine four broad classes of reagents (an amine, an aldehyde or a ketone, a carboxylic acid, and an isocyanide) into one new molecule. By using different reagents from each class, the researchers could quickly produce a wide array of distinct molecules. For this work, the team used five different amines, five aldehydes, 12 carboxylic acids, and five isocyanides in different combinations to create 1,500 distinct compounds.

"The advantage here is the potential scalability of the library," Rubenstein said. "We use just 27 different components to make a 1,500-molecule library in one day. That means we don't have to go out and find 1,500 unique molecules."

From there, the team used sub-libraries of compounds to encode their images. A 32-compound library was used to store a binary image of the Egyptian god Anubis. A 575-compound library was used to encode a 0.88-megapixel Picasso drawing of a violin.

The large number of molecules available for the chemical libraries also enabled the researchers to explore alternate encoding schemes that made the readout of data more robust. While mass spectrometry is highly precise, it's not perfect. So as with any system used to store or transmit data, this system will need some form of error correction.

"The way we design the libraries and read out the data includes extra information that lets us correct some errors," said Brown graduate student Chris Arcadia, first author of the paper. "That helped us streamline the experimental workflow and still get accuracy rates as high as 99 percent."

There's still more work to be done to bring this idea up to a useful scale, the researchers say. But the ability to create large chemical libraries and use them for encoding ever larger files suggests the approach can indeed be scaled up.

"We're no longer limited by the size of our chemical library, which is really important," Rosenstein said. "That's the biggest step forward here. When we started this project a few years ago, we had some debates about whether something of this scale was even experimentally feasible. So it's really encouraging that we've been able to do this."
-end-
Other co-authors on the paper were Eamonn Kennedy, Joseph Geiser, Amanda Dombroski, Kady Oakley, Shui-Ling Chen, Leonard Sprague, Mustafa Ozmen, Jason Sello, Peter M. Weber, Sherief Reda, Christopher Rose and Eunsuk Kim. The work was funded by DARPA (W911NF-18-2-0031) and the National Science Foundation (1941344).

Brown University

Related Molecules Articles:

Water molecules dance in three
An international team of scientists has been able to shed new light on the properties of water at the molecular level.
How molecules self-assemble into superstructures
Most technical functional units are built bit by bit according to a well-designed construction plan.
Breaking down stubborn molecules
Seawater is more than just saltwater. The ocean is a veritable soup of chemicals.
Shaping the rings of molecules
Canadian chemists discover a natural process to control the shape of 'macrocycles,' molecules of large rings of atoms, for use in pharmaceuticals and electronics.
The mysterious movement of water molecules
Water is all around us and essential for life. Nevertheless, research into its behaviour at the atomic level -- above all how it interacts with surfaces -- is thin on the ground.
Spectroscopy: A fine sense for molecules
Scientists at the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics have developed a unique laser technology for the analysis of the molecular composition of biological samples.
Looking at the good vibes of molecules
Label-free dynamic detection of biomolecules is a major challenge in live-cell microscopy.
Colliding molecules and antiparticles
A study by Marcos Barp and Felipe Arretche from Brazil published in EPJ D shows a model of the interaction between positrons and simple molecules that is in good agreement with experimental results.
Discovery of periodic tables for molecules
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) develop tables similar to the periodic table of elements but for molecules.
New method for imaging biological molecules
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have, together with colleagues from Aalto University in Finland, developed a new method for creating images of molecules in cells or tissue samples.
More Molecules News and Molecules Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.