Movie Encoded in DNA is the First Step Toward Datalogging with Living Cells

While DNA is a reasonably good storage medium, it’s not particularly fast, cheap, or convenient to read and write to.

What if living cells could simplify that by recording useful data into their own DNA for later analysis? At Harvard Medical School, scientists are working towards this goal by using CRISPR to encode and retrieve a short video in bacterial cells.

CRISPR is part of the immune system of many bacteria, and works by storing sequences of viral DNA in a specific location to identify and eliminate viral infections. As a tool for genetic engineering, it’s cheaper and has fewer drawbacks than previous techniques.

Besides generating living rickrolls and DMCA violations, what is this good for? Cheap, self-replicating sensors. [Seth Shipman], part of the team of scientists at Harvard, explains in an interview below a number of possible applications. His focus is engineering cells to act as a noninvasive data acquisition tool to study neurobiology, for example by using engineered neurons to record their developmental history.

It’s possible to see how this technique can be used more broadly and outside an academic context. Presently, biosensors generally use electric or fluorescent transducers to relay a detection event. By recording data over time in the DNA of living cells, biosensors could become much cheaper and contain intrinsic datalogging. Possible applications could include long-term metabolite (e.g. glucose) monitors, chemical detectors, and quality control.

It’s worth noting that this technique is only at the proof of concept stage. Data was recorded and retrieved manually by the scientists into the bacterial genome with 90% accuracy, demonstrating that if cells can be engineered to record data themselves, accuracy and capacity are high enough for practical applications.

That being said, if anyone is working on a MEncoder or ffmpeg command line option for this, let us know in the comments.

33 thoughts on “Movie Encoded in DNA is the First Step Toward Datalogging with Living Cells

  1. I was at a technical conference and the person who presented after myself had a talk titled “A Coding Scheme for Nucleic Acid Memory (NAM)” which focused on how to compress, encode, and error correct for data stored in NAM. Its a topic that was surprisingly interesting.

      1. I could tell you, but I would have to kill you.

        In all seriousness though, at least 3 people that I know of personally. Other than that, statistically, about 0.1% of the people in the room.

  2. Gives a different meaning to ‘viral videos’. We’ll have the World Health Organization responding to outbreaks of highly contagious mutations of “Downton Abbey”, followed by lawyers suing the victims for copyright infringement.

  3. if the bacteria can be made sensitive to different frequencies of light (like with rods and cones), and if the cell can be programmed to consider one wavelength a clock signal, another wavelength a data signal, perhaps it can become a cheap synthesizer for DNA fragments, optical UART to DNA bacterium

  4. “While DNA is a reasonably good storage medium, it’s not particularly fast, cheap, or convenient to read and write to.”

    In the very limited context of storing stuff like movies etc, yes sure, but otherwise, I beg to disagree. Your life depends on it, so it’s more than just “reasonably good”. Cheap? Ha ha – actually free. How much did you pay? Convenient? Well, your parents were otherwise occupied when yours first got written (wink wink nudge nudge – sorry to talk about your mother like that)

  5. The problem is that since there is no evolutionary pressure to maintain it even if the chunks aren’t simply removed (unlikely in a eukaryote possible in a prokaryotic) it will become littered with point mutations.

  6. Memory is cool but watching the video it sounds like what they are really working towards is more than that. It sounds like they are looking for a cellular equivalent of a debugger. Look at just how much that invention accelerated the development of computer technology. They are trying to do that with genetics. Very exciting!

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