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Allen Distinguished Investigator stores frames of a movie in living cells

July 12, 2017

A team jointly led by Allen Distinguished Investigator Jeffrey D. Macklis, at Harvard University, has demonstrated the enormous potential of DNA as a medium for storing information within living systems by encoding black and white images and frames of a short movie in the genome of a population of E. coli bacteria. The work, published this week in the journal Nature, is an exciting first step toward storing more kinds of information, including biological information, within many kinds of cellular DNA.

In order to encode image information into DNA, researchers first had to create a code that represented the pixels, but instead of using zeros and ones, they used the nucleotides that make up DNA. The team, including Macklis, Seth Shipman, Jeff Nivala and George Church, then used CRISPR technology to precisely deliver the code into the bacterial genome. For the five frames of the short GIF—a clip of the mare “Annie G.” galloping from Human and Animal Locomotion by Eadweard Muybridge—each frame was delivered individually, in order. The data encoding the GIF could be later retrieved by sequencing the DNA and reading off the pixel nucleotide code: a feat accomplished with around 90% accuracy.

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The paper serves as a proof of principle for inserting complex information into DNA, with the future goal of inserting not just frames of a movie, but complex biological information about the cell’s own development.

“This work demonstrates that an engineered system using CRISPR-Cas to edit bacterial genomes can capture and stably store large, practical amounts of real data,” says Macklis. “Our ultimate vision for this technology is for it to serve as a kind of ‘flight data recorder’ for developing neurons, where cells can record their molecular history and we can later read out that information to learn in great detail about cellular development. The work described in this paper provides a solid foundation toward inserting molecular ‘flight data recorders’ into cells and neurons that we want to deeply understand and control: their development, how they become diseased, and potentially even how they regenerate.”

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