Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Proteins: The building blocks for new digital media

'Salt marsh at sunset / Wellfleet, Massachusetts' by Tom Whelan
Microbes from this salt marsh will be sacrificed so you
can burn all your favourite movies on one DVD!
I love the way science and technology news stories are reported: Researchers discovered something new. They're going to produce a commercial version in X months. Rarely any discussion of the social impact it could have or what ethical implications it raises. Doesn't matter, it will be really cool, allow us to be more lazy and improve our quality of life. What more could you possibly want? Yes, we love learning about and testing out new technologies where possible. The social considerations are just more red tape that get in the way!

Update 1: A couple of other bloggers have posted about this, basically just to express amazement at the 50-terabyte storage potential of these DVDs: Update 2: There's correction of some mistakes in this post in the next post.

Sharks I made a short, sarcastic note earlier in the year when I posted about a device that could be fitted to sharks brains to control its movements. Well today I noticed (via ABC) that the DVDs of the future will make use of genetically-modified proteins (found originally in sea-dwelling microbes) to store information. Not so controversial on initial reading. Yet another example of biomimicry where we've gone back to nature to find a highly effective technical solution. But then, wasn't genetic modification (GM) meant to be something so terrifyingly unpredictable/wrong that thousands of protestors in New Zealand were able to significantly influence national policy on it? I wonder if people who object to eating GM foods also will object to using GM DVDs? I've never heard of protests against the GM products pervading our clothing stores thanks to GM cotton.

In Amélie's world, records are made like pancakes. What about the very fact that we are using protein to store bits of data? We use bits of animals for many purposes already, but never in a digital device as far as far as I can think (perhaps I missed one). The very building blocks for our bodies are being used as the building blocks for digital storage! On another note, I wonder if it will be okay by PETA and the RSPCA that we'll be spreading these proteins like paste on neat little discs for use in our laptops? I am suddenly seeing Amélie Poulain's vision of how records are made!

Anyway ethical concerns aside, this is übercool! Only problem would be that losing the DVD you'd lose the contents of your laptop. I guess backups would be easy though. What about the life of the media? According to the article:
When light shines on bR, [the protein,] it is converted to a series of intermediate molecules each with a unique shape and colour before returning to its 'ground state'.

The intermediates generally only last for hours or days.

But [the report's author] Renugopalakrishnan and colleagues modified the DNA that produces bR protein to produce an intermediate that lasts for more than several years, which paves the way for a binary system to store data.

"The ground state could be the zero and any of the intermediates could be the one," he says.
More than several years would be fine, but for more permanent storage magnetic storage is still required (perhaps those single-molecule magnets we sometimes hear about). Just imagine after 10 years the files on a protein-based DVD would start to fade like old photographs as the proteins returned to ground state. The data wouldn't be completely lost, just have blank patches like scratches on a CD. What about the fact that the proteins are sensitive to sunlight. Does this mean we have to keep them stored in a dark cool place like photographic paper and that the disc would have to be washed in a fixative after burning?

What about the information security issues? Oh yes, forget social implications, but data security is paramount so the obligatory two lines on the risks of putting such a large amount of easily-replicatable data into such a small space are included:
Renugopalakrishnan says making large amounts of information so portable on high-capacity removable storage devices will make it easier for information to fall into the wrong hands.

"Unfortunately science can be used and abused. Information can be stolen very quickly," he says. "One has to have some safeguards there."
But specifically what safeguards will be employed are left up to our imagination. Given that each protein will have its own unique genetic sequence, perhaps nature has provided the basis for the ultimate data integrity checksum! Although, for a checksum, it would seem ridiculously large.

Image credit: Salt marsh image courtesy of Tom Whelan; shark image courtesy of Mark Rosenstein; Amélie image edited from a screenshot of the movie, Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001).
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Blogger Anthony said...

Probably the most informative post I've ever read anywhere.

July 12, 2006 8:22 pm  

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