'Biological camera' promises to turn living DNA into new data centers

Can we turn the DNA inside all living cells into data storage solutions such as hard drives? Here is a technology that promises to do just that.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Digital DNA strand
DNA technology


Interesting Engineering recently reported how DNA-based data storage could save our world from running out of data centers to store all the information regularly produced on the internet. 

A team of researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has made a significant breakthrough in the same direction. They have developed a “biological camera” (also called “BacCam”) that can capture and store images inside the DNA of living cells.

“Our method represents a major milestone in integrating biological systems with digital devices. By harnessing the power of DNA and optogenetic circuits, we have created the first 'living digital camera,' which offers a cost-effective and efficient approach to DNA data storage,” said Poh Chueh Loo, one of the researchers and a professor of biomedical engineering at NUS.

BacCam works differently

'Biological camera' promises to turn living DNA into new data centers
Professor Poh (right) demonstrating the BacCam.

In 2018, the total amount of data that humans produced amounted to 33 zettabytes (33 ZB = 33 x 1012 GB), and by 2025, this number is expected to be 175 ZB. This data is stored in large data centers that occupy thousands of square feet and consume a lot of electric power. 

A report from the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing suggests that currently, the electric power running the data centers contributes to 0.3 percent of global carbon emissions. Plus, “If we extend our accounting to include networked devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets, the total shifts to 2 percent of global carbon emissions,” the MIT researchers note. 

This is why scientists are looking for alternate data storage solutions, and DNA has emerged as one of the most promising mediums for this purpose. “To put it into perspective, a single gram of DNA can hold over 215,000 terabytes of data – equivalent to storing 45 million DVDs combined,” explained Poh.

Many previously proposed DNA data storage solutions rely on synthetic DNA created outside a living cell. Still, according to the researchers, this approach is not feasible because it demands the use of complex instruments and requires a lot of money. 

Plus, it can produce errors during the copying process and even lead to data degradation. So instead of synthetic DNA, they propose to use living DNA for storing information and to achieve this feat, they created the world’s first biological camera, BacCam.

Similar to modern-day digital cameras, it can capture and store images. However, the difference is whereas a digital camera employs a memory card for storage, the BacCam uses DNA to encode and store the information.

While explaining the working mechanism of BacCam, Poh said, “Imagine the DNA within a cell as an undeveloped photographic film. Using optogenetics – a technique that controls the activity of cells with light akin to the shutter mechanism of a camera, we managed to capture ‘images’ by imprinting light signals onto the DNA ‘film.’”

Basically, BacCam captures and stores images simultaneously, similar to how a camera harnesses multiple light colors. 

“The multiplexing ability of light allows us to utilize different wavelengths of light to encode additional layers of information, providing significant flexibility in encoding and offering potential avenues for capacity expansion,” the researchers note.

Once the images are captured, they are labeled using barcodes, and then an AI program stores them in an organized manner in the DNA of living cells. During their study, the scientists successfully tested BacCam to store, sort, and retrieve multiple images from a DNA pool. 

Storing data inside living cells is feasible

For synthetic DNA-based data solutions, scientists are first required to create DNA from scratch in a lab environment which, as mentioned earlier, is both a complex and expensive process. Plus, it requires great expertise.

On the other side, the NUS team claims that using the DNA of living cells for storage is both a cost-effective and easy-to-scale approach since scientists won’t have to create new DNA on their own every time they run out of existing synthetic DNA to store data. 

Moreover, With a system like BacCam, new information can be captured and recorded at the same time using living DNA, and this could save a lot of time. Hopefully, it will open new avenues for feasible, better, and more accessible DNA data storage. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Study Abstract:

The increasing integration between biological and digital interfaces has led to heightened interest in utilizing biological materials to store digital data, with the most promising one involving the storage of data within defined sequences of DNA that are created by de novo DNA synthesis. However, there is a lack of methods that can obviate the need for de novo DNA synthesis, which tends to be costly and inefficient. Here, in this work, we detail a method of capturing 2-dimensional light patterns into DNA, by utilizing optogenetic circuits to record light exposure into DNA, encoding spatial locations with barcoding, and retrieving stored images via high-throughput next-generation sequencing. We demonstrate the encoding of multiple images into DNA, totaling 1152 bits, selective image retrieval, as well as robustness to drying, heat, and UV. We also demonstrate successful multiplexing using multiple wavelengths of light, capturing 2 different images simultaneously using red and blue light. This work thus establishes a ‘living digital camera,’ paving the way towards integrating biological systems with digital devices.

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