BacCam DNA Data Storage Emulates Digital Camera Biologically

By James Anderson •  Updated: 07/15/23 •  4 min read

The amount of data being produced worldwide is unprecedented. The Global Datasphere, estimated to have been 33 ZB in 2018, is expected to grow to 175 ZB by 2025. This has sparked a search for an alternative to traditional data storage that can go beyond its limitations and address the negative environmental effects of resource-intensive data centers.

Researchers have now developed a new “biological camera” that encodes and stores data using living cells and their innate biological processes. The work was led by Poh Chueh Loo, associate professor in the College of Design and Engineering at the National University of Singapore and the NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI).

The accomplishment represents a significant advance in encoding and storing images directly within DNA, creating a new model for information storage similar to a digital camera.

215,000 Terabytes of Data

BacCam Workflow

BacCam Workflow. (A) Encoding of light into bacteria and barcoding for preservation of spatial information. (B) Sequencing and decoding of stored DNA back into original image. (C) Initial proof of concept of BacCam using the ‘BACCAM’ pattern. Credit: Nat Commun 14, 3921 (2023) CC-BY

Using DNA to store other kinds of information, like pictures and videos, has only recently attracted interest. DNA has a remarkable capacity for storing information, is stable, and has been a useful information storage medium for a very long time.

“We are facing an impending data overload. DNA, the key biomaterial of every living thing on Earth, stores genetic information that encodes for an array of proteins responsible for various life functions. To put it into perspective, a single gram of DNA can hold over 215,000 terabytes of data, equivalent to storing 45 million DVDs combined,”

said Poh.

DNA is also simple to manipulate with current molecular biology tools, can be stored in a variety of forms at room temperature, and is so resilient that it can last for centuries.

BacCam Living Camera

Despite its enormous potential, most current DNA storage research focuses on creating DNA strands outside of cells. This process is costly and depends on sophisticated equipment that is also prone to error.

To circumvent this limitation, Poh and his team turned to live cells, which contain an abundance of DNA that can serve as a “data bank” and eliminate the need to synthesize genetic material externally.

The team created “BacCam,” a novel system that combines biological and digital techniques to simulate the functions of a digital camera with biological components.

“Imagine the DNA within a cell as an undeveloped photographic film. Using optogenetics — a technique that controls the activity of cells with light akin to the shutter mechanism of a camera — we managed to capture ‘images’ by imprinting light signals onto the DNA ‘film,”

explained Poh.

Simple Scalable System

Dilution experiments demonstrating the theoretical maximum information capacity of BacCam

Dilution experiments demonstrating the theoretical maximum information capacity of BacCam. Credit: Nat Commun 14, 3921 (2023) CC-BY

The researchers then used barcoding techniques similar to photo labelling to mark the captured images for unique identification.

The stored images were arranged, sorted, and rebuilt using machine learning algorithms. These processes make up the biological camera, which mimics a digital camera’s data collection, archival, and retrieval functions.

The study demonstrates the camera’s capacity to record and store multiple images simultaneously while utilizing various light colours. More importantly, the team’s inventive system is simple to replicate and scalable compared to earlier DNA data storage approaches.

“As we push the boundaries of DNA data storage, there is an increasing interest in bridging the interface between biological and digital systems,”

said Poh.

The technique marks a significant advancement in the fusion of biological systems and digital technology. The NUS researchers have developed the first “living digital camera,” which provides a practical and affordable method for storing DNA data.

This device makes use of optogenetic circuits and DNA to create the camera’s first “living” aspect. In addition to investigating additional uses for DNA data storage, the work repurposes current data-capture technologies into a biological framework.

Reference: Lim, C.K., Yeoh, J.W., Kunartama, A.A. et al. A biological camera that captures and stores images directly into DNA. Nat Commun 14, 3921 (2023).