Gradually computers are becoming more like living beings, and now it looks like living beings are becoming more like computers. Scientists have discovered a method for storing lines of code in living bacteria that can be passed down to the next generation as genetic information.
A team of Havard scientists has enabled 100 bytes of data to be successfully stored in E. coli bacteria. Still, they say it has the potential to ‘upload’ even more data than that and may help in research in developmental biology and synthetic devices. Before this experiment, the most information any scientist had ever permanently uploaded into a living cell was 11 bits of information. That’s a mere 11 zeros and ones of binary data, and less information than your computer requires to code for two alphabetic letters. This new technique expanded this record to roughly 100 bytes of data.
All of this was possible due to CRISPR-Cas9. Since it has already opened up new ways of rewriting DNA segments, the scientists were able to use the bacteria’s own CRISPR/Cas-style editing processes to write specific code. When bacteria detects a virus, it cuts and pastes a part of the virus’s DNA into its genome, so it can recognize that virus again in the future. This security checklist is passed on through the generations, which is how organisms can build up immunity to certain kinds of viruses over time.
In this experiment, the team created its code and disguised it as a virus. When the fake virus was introduced to the bacteria, the same CRISPR/Cas9 swapping took place, and the data was embedded into the bacteria.
As the bacteria store the data they receive sequentially, it’s much easier to retrieve at a later stage (via genetic analysis called genotyping). Still, there are potential problems along the way since not all of the bacteria received all of the data presented, which means you would need a large sample size to get the full message back. When the scientists introduce coded messages of viral DNA to their bacteria, not all of the bacteria eat up the message. By chance, some miss it. So if you were to introduce word-by-word the code for the sentence “This Message Is In Your Genes,” using six introductions of viral DNA, not all the bacteria would have the complete message. Some would have “This In Genes,” while others might only have “Is Genes,” and so on.
But even with these errors, one still can rapidly genotype a few thousand or million bacteria in a colony and, because the message is always recorded sequentially, deduce what the full message was with crystal clarity. It’s like playing a game of DNA telephone.
Astounding research, but looking at all these tiny capacities, it is wiser that you don’t trade in your old hard drives just yet.