Bacteria have been compared functionally to IoT devices. Receptors work as sensors, enabling bacteria to detect chemicals, electromagnetic fields, light, acidity, mechanical stress and temperature. The flagellum is the bacterium’s actuator, which will “wag” in response to stimuli. The bacterium’s DNA acts as a control unit, storing data and encoding instructions. Ribosomes work as memory and processors. A bacterium’s pilli act as a transceiver, enabling bacteria to share information. While these comparisons may be over simplified, they demonstrate the ability of living bacteria to function as IoT devices.
Bacteria could be programmed to detect toxins in food, pollution in water or air or collect data on and treat diseases within the human body. The technology has limitations, like the inability to track and control bacteria outside of a laboratory setting. But the future could hold exciting developments.
Engineers and biologists at MIT have designed hydrogel wearables with chemical-detecting luminescent cells. Fingertips on a rubber glove glow when in contact with certain chemical compounds, demonstrating safety applications for workers in potentially hazardous environments. The team also created bandages that light up when contacting sugars on a person’s skin. The technology could be altered to detect disease on a person’s skin or infection in a wound.
A GIF of a galloping horse and an image of a human hand were stored onto a colony of E. coli and then retrieved with 90% fidelity. Researchers hope to develop the capability for bacteria to record their own digitally retrievable information in a living diary, enabling noninvasive methods for obtaining cell state data for neuroscience development research and medical applications.
Researchers believe up to 215 petabytes (or 220,160 terabytes) can be stored on a single gram of DNA, and storage can last for hundreds of thousands of years. In the future, bacteria might replace electronics as information storage vessels, capable of holding entire libraries and more.
In 2017, Microsoft announced plans to add DNA data storage to the cloud, replacing tape drives. Last year, Microsoft revealed the first proof-of-concept test, encoding the word “hello” in DNA and converting it to digital data through a fully automated system. Costs need to be reduced and efficiency increased before we see DNA data storage technology implemented in the cloud, however.
Current limitations have not deterred research. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) recently awarded $48 million in support of programs to develop a 1 million terabyte digital data storage system. One group receiving the award will work to develop next-generation sequencing to improve the process in decoding DNA-stored data. The second group is developing a more efficient DNA synthesis platform. The efforts of both groups will reduce the cost and improve the speed of the DNA data storage process.