Data storage and hard disk drives are among the most limited tech resources. People are exploring new ways to store data, including using DNA.
In 2014, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers reported to have stored 700 terabytes (TB) of data in one gramme of Escherichia coli (a common laboratory strain of the ubiquitous human gut microbiome) or 14,000 Blu-ray discs.
In a paper, “The digital universe of opportunities: Rich data and the increasing value of the Internet of Things”, they averred that the technology could hold up to 44 zettabytes (ZB), or 44 trillion Gigabytes (GB), by early this year.
In a 2017 study, researchers used genome editing tool Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) to develop a microchip data recorder. They altered a fragment of bacterial DNA known as plasmid to make copies of itself in the bacterial cell in response to external stimuli. The concept of data being stored in DNA has since piqued the interest of scientists and businesses.
However, sperm data storage (SDS) is a concept with great potential but has never been tried. A sperm contains about 760 megabytes (MB) of DNA information. During a three-second-long ejaculation, more than 135,000 TB of information — that would take 57,821 years to download on 1Mbps connection — are transmitted. Forget all you thought you knew about fibreoptics; this is a more reliable, faster and never-ending data transmitter!
So, what precisely is contained in this 760MB of organic data? The DNA is a “digital record” that the body “reads” to decide how it grows. It’s a series of “codes”, each representing a trait’s feature. It’s what defines how you grow and look. What if we replaced the space a sperm provides for DNA with computerised digital data? Or convert digital data into organic data on a molecular scale as a cluster.
I foresee men’s personal data being stored in their testicles and their partners become hackers “hunting” them for it. Data transferred via SDS may be more secure, owing to the direct peer-to-peer-secured connection during transaction. The womb being the best natural environment for sperm survival, it may be an unobtrusive cloud server.
SDS could increase global data storage, reduce physical disk space usage, spur new working sectors with employment opportunities, improve computer portability and help to lower the carbon footprint in the ecosystem. But it could also have some disadvantages. The short lifespan of a sperm after ejaculation could be a technological constraint.
However, unprotected intercourses could raise the risk of data insecurity and private information leakage, though this may be avoided by encouraging condom usage or encrypting data. And just as strolling down the street with a million shillings in the wallet isn’t a good idea for personal safety, walking about with your “valuable” private and sensitive data between your legs might be dangerous!
Mr Onyango, a STEM Scholar, is a Global Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute (MWI). firstname.lastname@example.org.