World's Smallest Tape Recorder Built From Gut Bacteria

By Allan Adamson | Nov 24, 2017 10:12 AM EST

Researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center used molecular hacks to convert a naturally-occurring gut bacteria in humans into the world's smallest data recorder.

Escherichia Coli Bacteria As Biological Tape Recorder

Researchers modified a laboratory strain of Escherichia coli, a type of bacteria that normally lives in the intestines, to enable these to record their interaction within their environment and time-stamp events.

Study researcher Harris Wang from CUMC and his colleagues used CRISPR-Cas system to develop what they described as a biological tape recorder.

Database Of Pathogen Attacks

CRISPR-Cas serves as the database of the body of all past pathogen attacks. It copies the DNA snippets of invading viruses so that the next generations of bacteria can more effectively repel pathogens.

Since the CRISPR locus of the bacterial genome collects chronological records of the bacterial viruses that have survived it and its ancestors, it becomes more efficient at recognizing and eliminating the same viruses that attempt to infect again.

"The CRISPR-Cas system is a natural biological memory device," Wang said. "From an engineering perspective that's actually quite nice, because it's already a system that has been honed through evolution to be really great at storing information."

Scientists earlier used CRISPR to edit the genomes of lab animals, cell cultures, and even humans to find new treatment for diseases

Potential Applications

The researchers said that when the modified bacteria get swallowed by a patient, they could record the changes they experience through the digestive tract and this can offer an unprecedented view of previously inaccessible phenomena. These modified bacteria may also monitor changes in their surroundings sans causing disruptions.

There is growing number of evidence that links gut bacteria with a range of body conditions. A 2016 study, for instance, suggests a link between gut bacteria and Parkinson's disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disease that afflicts 10 million people worldwide. Gut bacteria have also been linked to chronic fatigue and multiple sclerosis.

Given possible associations between gut bacteria and some diseases, better tools that can analyze the complex environment of intestinal bacteria can prove invaluable in the search for better treatments.

"A "biological tape recorder" is developed in which biological signals trigger intracellular DNA production that is then recorded by the CRISPR-Cas adaptation system," the researchers wrote in their study. "This work enables the temporal measurement of dynamic cellular states and environmental changes and suggests new applications for chronicling biological events on a large scale."

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