Scientists Develop Technique to Encode Data into Living Cells

June 13, 2016

Scientists at Harvard University have just developed a gene editing technique that allows information to be permanently stored in living cells. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 editing tools, the information was encoded, so permanently, in fact, that it can be passed down to successive generations of cells. Encoding information into DNA isn’t completely new, but encoding information onto DNA of a living organism definitely is. Scientists were previously able to artificially sequence DNA with specified information, but the result was only synthesized DNA, not information encoded on living cells. In a study published here, the team of scientists outlines how they harnessed this encoding technique.

“We show that the type I-E CRISPR-Cas system of E. coli can mediate acquisition of defined pieces of synthetic DNA. We harnessed this feature to generate records of specific DNA sequences into a population of bacterial genomes.” ~ Seth L. Shipman

The CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique has proven to be one of the most effective ways to further implement genetic engineering, and it only first came into the picture a few years ago. E. coli bacteria were used to create ‘living hard drive’, according to Popular Mechanics, which can store up to 100 bytes of information. This may not seem like much, but previously only 10 bytes of information was able to be stored on DNA. If you need some refreshing on how the CRISPR genome editing technique works, you can check out the video below.

This method of storing information on living cells won’t be used to make bacteria hard drives for your computers, but rather it will be used to help bacteria remember certain events and actions. For example, scientists would be able to input a segment of information into the genome of the bacteria so it would remember how to fend off attacking viruses. As the information was introduced into the bacteria, the cells began storing it sequentially, which is a big deal when you think about the timeline of certain virus attacks, according to Gizmodo. Since the information is sequential, it doesn’t have to be encoded with a signature that indicates date and occurrence, rather its storage order already indicates that.

The only problem surrounding this new technique is that some bacteria don’t get all of the information transferred correctly, according to Popular Science. This isn’t an issue in the grand scheme of things, but it means that some bacteria only end up with partial messages. However, when you observe the many millions of encoded cells, you can deduce what the original message was since it was recorded sequentially, as mentioned above.

bacteria encode information[Image Source: Flickr]

Editing the genomes and DNA of cells presents certain ethical debates in the scientific community, but they are slowly being overcome. The CRISPR/Cas9 techniques continue to make history in the field of understanding encoding information on cells, and soon we will see even more advancements in these fields.

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