Scientists have successfully stored a digital movie clip in the DNA of living bacteria for the first time, the latest and perhaps most notable example of using the genome as an information storage method.
The biotech breakthrough was first reported Wednesday in scientific journal Nature. Researchers at Harvard Medical School managed to encode a picture of a hand and a five-frame, looping movie clip of a horse galloping into the DNA of E. Coli bacteria. When they retrieved the data, they were able to reproduce the image perfectly and the video with around 90 percent accuracy. The horse video was, fittingly, one of the first movie clips ever recorded — essentially, the world’s first GIF. Now, it’s notable for two technological breakthroughs.
The researchers used CRISPR, a powerful and relatively new gene-editing tool, to embed the data into the bacteria. While using DNA to store data isn’t a new concept by any means, the Harvard researchers’ technique is notable because it marks the first time scientists have been able to encode data in living bacteria. Using live DNA is much harder because the cells are constantly changing. And it’s just one of the amazing things being done with CRISPR, which is also being used to try and create custom, cancer-fighting white blood cells.
The method currently isn’t practical for storing large amounts of information, however. The video was only 36 by 26 pixels, in contrast to the estimated 215 million gigabytes that a single gram of synthetic DNA could potentially hold. But the researchers’ technique opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. In the future, using similar methods, it may be possible to create “cell records” to track how and why people get sick, according to the New York Times. And, study co-author Seth Shipman told The Verge that gene-edited DNA could potentially be used to track how neurons in the brain develop and change over time. And yes, one day, it certainly could be possible to start storing data in our own bodies.