- CRISPR is a gene editing tool that cuts the genome with
increased precision enabling addition or removal of parts of the genome.
- CRISPR was used to incorporate a galloping horse GIF
and a hand photo into live bacterial cells.
- The encoded information was retrieved from the
bacterial cells by sequencing with an accuracy rate of 90%.
has been engineered and re-engineered several times
to produce a wide variety of products including insulin, antibiotics and fuel,
the concept of storing digital information in this bacteria is relatively new.
A team of researchers from Harvard University have recently used CRISPR
technology to add bits that encode digital data of a hand and a galloping horse
into the bacterial genome. On allowing the bacteria to grow and multiply, the
edited cells were sequenced and the data was retrieved with 90% accuracy. The
study was published in Nature.
What is CRISPR?
stands for C
epeats. The term "CRISPR" generally refers to
the entire CRISPR-Cas9 system
, which may be programmed to target
specific DNA sequences and edit at precise locations. Cas-9 is an enzyme that
binds to DNA and cuts it. CRISPR is a set of DNA sequences that tells the Cas9
where exactly to cut. This CRISPR- Cas9 system is a major advancement in the
field of genetic engineering which now makes gene editing all the more simpler
CRISPR was originally identified in bacteria in 1987. It is part of an
integral defense mechanism in bacteria. When a bacteria is subjected to a viral
attack, the bacteria retains parts of the viral DNA and incorporates that into
its own genome. This way, on later infection by the same virus, the Cas
proteins recognise the saved sequence and cut the viral DNA, thereby stopping
the virus attack.
How was Digital Information
Introduced into Bacterial Cells?
Researchers for the first time have created a living library in E.coli
. Living, because while previously data was stored in synthetic DNA,
here the group has incorporated bits of DNA encoded with photos and a GIF of a
galloping horse into live bacteria.
‘A galloping horse GIF and a photo of a hand were added to the DNA of a bacteria; the same were also retrieved with 90% accuracy by sequencing the bacterial DNA.’
The team of researchers converted the individual pixels of each image
into nucleotides, which are the building blocks of DNA. This way an entire
sequence of nucleotides were created and tagged to the CRISPR system. These
were further delivered into the bacteria using electroporation
How was the Digital Data that
was Added into Bacteria Retrieved?
The bacterial cells were allowed to multiply and the the bacterial DNA
was sequenced (reading of nucleotide sequences using advanced tools). Using the
pixel-nucleotide code, the same images were reconstructed with about 90%
accuracy. The images included a picture of a hand and a GIF of a galloping
rider and a horse, taken by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the
Why Store Data in DNA?
While the cost of developing these DNA storage systems is very high,
they provide huge prospects. When stored appropriately in cold and dry
conditions, the DNA can keep data intact for over 100,000 years. Also since
some bacteria can withstand high temperatures and explosions, the data is
offered extra protection. However, storing the data in live bacterial cells is
debateable since the integrity of the data stored may be lost as a result of
mutations in bacteria.
All this makes one wonder; was all of this just done for fun, because
we have the technology to do so?
Apparently not, as Seth Shipman, a geneticist
at Harvard points out "We encoded images and a movie into DNA in a living cell which
is fun, but it's not really the point of the system, what we're trying to
develop is a molecular recorder that can sit inside living cells and collect
data over time."
- Shipman, S. L., Nivala, J., Macklis, J. D., & Church, G. M. (2017). CRISPR-Cas encoding of a digital movie into the genomes of a population of living bacteria. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature23017