SEVERAL classes of organic materials (such as photoanisotropic liquid-crystalline polymers(1-4) and photorefractive polymers(5-7)) are being investigated for the development of media for optical data storage. Here we describe a new family of organic materials-peptide oligomers containing azobenzene chromophores-which appear particularly promising for erasable holographic data storage applications. The rationale for our approach is to use the structural properties of peptide-like molecules to impose orientational order on the chromophores, and thereby optimize the optical properties of the resulting materials. Here we show that holographic gratings with large first-order diffraction efficiencies (up to 80%) can be written and erased optically in oligomer films only a few micrometres thick. The holograms also exhibit good thermal stability, and are not erased after heating to 180 degrees C for one month. Straightforward extension of this peptide-based strategy to other molecular structures should allow the rational design of a wide range of organic materials with potentially useful optical properties.