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Researchers use expensive machinery to develop ways to harness DNA as a synthetic raw material to store large amounts of digital information outside of living cells. But what if they could coerce living cells, such as large populations of bacteria, to use their own genomes as a biological hard drive that can record information scientists could tap anytime? That approach not only could open entirely new possibilities of data storage, it could also be engineered into an effective memory device able to create a chronological record of cells’ molecular experiences during development or under exposure to stresses or pathogens. In 2016, a team at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Harvard Medical School (HMS) led by Wyss core faculty member George Church built the first molecular recorder based on the CRISPR system. The recorder allows cells to acquire bits of chronologically provided, DNA-encoded information that generate a memory in a bacterium’s genome. The information is stored as an array of sequences in the CRISPR locus and can be recalled and used to reconstruct a timeline of events. “As promising as this was, we did not know what would happen when we tried to track about 100 sequences at once, or if it would work at all. This was critical since we are aiming to use this system to record complex biological events as our ultimate goal,” said Seth Shipman, a postdoctoral fellow working with Church and the study’s first author. Now they know. In a study published today in Nature, the same team shows in foundational proof-of-principle experiments that developed further as a first-of-its-kind approach, the CRISPR system can encode information in living cells that is as complex as a digitized image of a human hand, reminiscent of early humans’ paintings on cave walls and a sequence of one of the first motion pictures made ever, Eadweard Muybridge’s film of a galloping horse.”

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