Austin, Texas – A team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin has developed a way of encoding information using urethane polymers. To illustrate the technique, they managed to encode a quote from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park that could then be read back.
Similar techniques are increasingly common using DNA, because information can be stored at a much higher density than they can with familiar silicon-based technologies. They believe the polyurethane method will allow an even greater density of information to be stored.
The potential of polymers as information storage devices has yet to be realised, they said, because of a lack of inexpensive, efficient approaches to reading and writing information that are reproducible on a large scale. Their approach is to compress the text into a sequence of binary digits via an algorithm, and then convert this into hexadecimals that were ‘translated’ into a urethane chain.
They applied it to the 158-character Austen quote: ‘If one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.’ It was synthesised into 18 ten-monomer oligourethanes, with each individual monomer representing a hexadecimal character.
Decoding was achieved by working backwards. The oligomers were sequenced using a self-immolation technique, where the compounds spontaneously fragmented into monomers via a cascade of reactions. The sequencing data were then fed into decoding software, which assigned the molecules to their corresponding hexadecimal characters. The entire quote could be reproduced accurately from this.
The reproducibility was checked by handing the code, along with a set of instructions, to a colleague who was not involved in the project. All bar two characters were deciphered correctly on the first attempt and, with a slight modification to the instructions, completely correctly at the second attempt.
‘This work is another step toward the long-term goal of using synthetic sequence-defined polymers for information storage,’ said Eric Anslyn, one of the chemists on the team. ‘It sets the stage and hopefully inspires further work towards the practical use of molecules to usefully store information. Our future work will address the error rates in the reading and writing, as well as the limitations of oligourethanes as a medium for information storage.’
The work has been published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.