While encoding a short film into DNA is impressive, the scientists aren't planning to create some type of cellular-level Netflix app. The Muybridge clip is intended to show the scope for the CRISPR system to turn living cells into recording devices, pulling information from their surroundings and keeping a sequential record within their genome.
An image of a hand and a GIF of a horse running have both been encoded into the DNA of a bacteria.
A team of biologists took advantage of the bacterial defence mechanism on which the gene editing system CRISPR is based to write an animated GIF, pixel by pixel, into a population of bacteria. Then the information could be retrieved simply by sequencing the genomes of the cells it is stored in. However, this is the first time that science encoded and then played back a video such as this one in living bacteria cells.
Alan Davidson, a molecular geneticist at the University of Toronto who did not take part in the work, but is also collaborating with some of the study's authors, points out that two very similar papers were recently published in Nature this April and Molecular Cell in June.
The scientists hope to use the technique to build "living sensors", cells that can log what happens to them.
Shipman, Church and their Harvard colleagues created synthetic DNA encoded with the four basic building blocks found in a double helix: adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine.
As the paper explains, "When harnessed, this system has the potential to write arbitrary information into the genome".
"We want to use neurons to record a molecular history of the brain through development", Shipman said.
Coming soon to a petri dish near you-dramas that are as compelling as any that would reveal the mysteries of the human heart, only more intimate.
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"In order to put constraints on the sequences, we had them contain information and the information we used was images". The information, stored away as an array of sequences in the CRISPR locus can be recalled and used to reconstruct a timeline of events.
Then they were able to reconstruct the racehorse movie with 90 percent accuracy by sequencing the bacterial DNA.
The Crispr-Cas9 system -which is also funded by the NIH- allowed them to store the information into E. coli.
According to the researchers, the ability to encode sequential events, such as a movie is the key to the idea of reinventing the core concept of recording using molecular engineering.
Then, the researchers inserted short DNA fragments containing these codes into bacteria, and the bacteria incorporated the fragments into their genome. "You would not use it to store movies, but I would use synthetic DNA to store movies", said Ceze.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (5R01MH103910), the National Human Genome Research Institute (5P50HG005550), Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (5R01NS045523), Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, and Wyss Institute.
The bacteria could multiply with the extra information it acquired, and even transmitted it to future generations.
"We envision a biological memory system that's much smaller and more versatile than today's technologies, which will track many events non-intrusively over time", states Seth Shipman, part of the team.
All jokes aside, while this sounds like a huge advancement for entertainment technology or data archiving, the researchers have something even more inventive in mind.