Imagine being able to store your digital files, such as photographs and movies, directly into living cells. Sounds crazy? This is exactly what a team of biologists in Harvard is trying to accomplish when they coded an animated image into the DNA of bacteria.

In a study featured in the journal Nature, Seth Shipman and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School recorded a frame-by-frame GIF of a galloping horse into bacterial cells. The iconic image, titled Annie G., was embedded into the DNA of the organism using CRISPR technology.

The possibility of encoding and storing information into synthesized DNA has been done before. However, these attempts were made using non-living samples since it is very difficult to store data into living cells that are always changing.

The Harvard study shows that it is possible to convert cells into storage space through the help of gene-editing techniques.

Coding Images Into DNA

Shipman and his colleagues have been trying to explore ways on how to encode information into cells. The team views DNA as a more stable form of data storage compared with silicon memory, especially if it is for long-term use.

Shipman said they successfully encoded several sequences into DNA samples and even retrieved some time information from them last year. However, they still wanted to know if they could use real information instead of just arbitrary sequences.

In their recent attempt, the researchers chose a five-frame GIF to code into the cells of living E. coli bacteria. The image, titled Annie G., was taken by photographer Eadweard Muybridge during the 1800s.

The group began by first breaking each of the GIF's frames into a 36-pixel by 26-pixel grid. They then coded the color of each pixel using the DNA's nucleotides. They also developed a code to indicate where each pixel belonged to in the frames.

The researchers, however, did not include a code that would allow the bacterial cells to know the order of the frames. They wanted to see if the DNA would be able to recognize the order when it captures the new information it is about to be given.

Shipman and his team then used a technique known as electroporation to insert the synthesized DNA into the bacterial cells. After placing the DNA into the cells, they then used CRISPR to insert pixel codes into the genome of the bacteria. This effectively allowed them to upload the animated GIF into the bacterial DNA one frame at a time.

Once every frame had been inserted, the researchers extracted the DNA and sequenced the parts of the cells where the encoded frames of the GIF image should be. Through the help of a computer program, they ran the extracted sequences and played the animated image.

Despite the success of the experiment, the new method still has a few limitations. One of these is its inability to handle a large volume of information. The animated GIF that was used was only 36 pixels by 26 pixels, which is significantly smaller compared with data that can be encoded into synthetic DNA. However, it does open the possibility of using living cells.

The Harvard researchers hope that their technique could lead to a system that allows events in the human body to be recorded as they happen.

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