Image: Professor Masaru Tomita
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Keio University Professor Masaru Tomita, who heads the team of bacteria-encoding researchers, speaks about his study to use bacteria as a data storage medium.
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updated 5/16/2007 3:20:15 PM ET 2007-05-16T19:20:15

These days, data get stored on disks, computer chips, hard drives and good old-fashioned paper. Scientists in Japan see something far smaller and more durable — bacteria.

The four characters that represent the genetic coding in DNA work much like digital data. Character combinations can stand for specific letters and symbols — so codes in genomes can be translated, or read, to produce music, text, video and other content.

While ink may fade and computers may crash, bacterial information lasts as long as a species stays alive — possibly a mind-boggling million years — according to Professor Masaru Tomita, who heads the team of researchers at Keio University.

Tomita's team successfully inserted into a common bacterium Albert Einstein's famous "E=MC2" equation and "1905," the year the Nobel Prize-winning physicist published the special theory of relativity.

Genetic coding is so massive that information — say, a Shakespeare play — can be stashed away somewhere in the gene without affecting an organism's overall appearance and other traits.

But mutation could distort stored data. Tomita says data are stored in four places in the bacteria so the data stay intact, though Katsumi Doi, bacteria expert and Kyushu University professor, is skeptical.

"We may need more time for practical applications," Doi said. "But I love the idea."

Translating the Einstein message would require solving the code. But Tomita is the kind of freethinking scientist intrigued by the notion that an extraterrestrial might come across it in the distant future — and naturally possess the superior intelligence to quickly solve the code.

Tomita shrugs off the obvious question: "Who in the world is going to read bacteria?"

"Many people never even thought about storing data for thousands of years," Tomita said. "This may sound like a dream. But we're thinking hundreds of millions of years."

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