Forget your portable drive, bacteria may take their place soon

Images and a short movie from Eadweard Muybridge’s Human and Animal Locomotion have been encoded into the DNA of bacteria using the CRISPR system. This achievement, reported in Nature, expands on previous demonstrations that DNA provides a promising medium for storing digital data within living cells.

Recent work has indicated that information could be transferred into living cells using the CRISPR system, which uses two proteins to insert genetic code into the DNA of target cells. 

Seth Shipman and colleagues demonstrate this ability by using the CRISPR system to encode images and a short GIF (five frames of the mare ‘Annie G.’ galloping from Human and Animal Locomotion at 36×26 pixels) in Escherichia coli. They use nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to produce a code that relates to the individual pixels of each image. 

For the GIF, sequences are delivered frame-by-frame over time to living bacteria, where they are inserted into the genome in the order that they were delivered. Once inserted into the genome of E.coli, the data can then be retrieved by sequencing the DNA and the images are reconstructed by reading the pixel nucleotide code, which was achieved with around 90% accuracy.

In addition to establishing that the CRISPR system may enable the recording of practical amounts of data in living cells, the study also reveals new insights into the functioning of the CRISPR system. 

For example, the authors determine which sequences are best for transferring data into the genome, which could also guide other applications of the CRISPR system.

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