Researchers use CRISPR to store a movie in living bacteria

13 July, 2017, 01:02 | Author: Becky Perry
  • Researchers use CRISPR to store a movie in living bacteria

The bacteria E. coli might sometimes make us sick, but they have served as a workhorse in science.

Research at UC Berkeley and elsewhere suggests that CRISPR-Cas9 constantly feints with the cell's DNA fix system: as the enzyme cuts at its target site, the cell repairs the DNA, and CRISPR-Cas9 cuts again, repeating this vicious cycle until a mutation arises in the DNA that prevents enzyme binding, at which point the CRISPR-Cas9 molecule moves on to find another binding site. Now E. coli can claim one more skill: They can store our digital data.

Alan Davidson, a molecular geneticist at the University of Toronto who did not take part in the work, but is also collaborating with some of the study's authors, points out that two very similar papers were recently published in Nature this April and Molecular Cell in June.

Researchers are continually developing more efficient ways to store digital data.

RG: How much information could potentially be stored on DNA? Storing information in living DNA is more hard because the cells are always changing.

The technical achievement, reported on July 12 in Nature, is a step towards creating cellular recording systems that are capable of encoding a series of events, says Seth Shipman, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. Researchers have used the microbial immune system CRISPR-Cas to encode a movie into the genome of the bacterium Escherichia coli.

They delivered the GIF into the living bacteria in the form of five frames: images of a galloping horse and rider, taken by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who produced the first stop-motion photographs in the 1870s. They reconstructed the image perfectly, and the video with 90 percent accuracy.

So it can be done. Stock our refrigerators with petri dishes full of family memories?

These anti-CRISPR proteins are likely to be a useful genetics, and perhaps clinical, tool. If we can use DNA to store information, we could also use it to record information, meaning we can use CRISPR to turn cells into tiny records of what they're doing and what's happening to them. That way we could flexibly create the DNA, avoiding problematic sequences.

Researchers use CRISPR to store a movie in living bacteria
Researchers use CRISPR to store a movie in living bacteria

"We want to use neurons to record a molecular history of the brain through development", Shipman said.

Before any of that happens, however, "there's a lot of important efficacy and safety [investigations] that still need to be done", Corn says. Humans start out as one power-packed ball of pluripotent stem cells, which can turn into anything: brain cells, organ-specific cells, blood cells. We care about that because we want to make cells that can record information from biological systems and store that information so that we can collect data without having to disrupt the biological system.

But first, Shipman needed to test the system with electronic data.

CRISPR (you say it like "crisper") stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR's job is to grab a piece of DNA from viral invaders and file it in the CRISPR section of its genome, generating a chronological record of invaders.

"We want to turn cells into historians", explained neuroscientist Seth Shipman, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow working with Church, in a statement. Sontheimer was not involved in the study, but he is a cofounder of Intellia Therapeutics, alongside study coauthor Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and the company is using an anti-CRISPR protein that Sontheimer co-discovered (not AcrIIA4).

Jacob Corn, one of the first authors on the study, said: 'The ability to turn Cas9 gene editing off is just as important as the ability to turn it on.

CRISPR makes it easy to edit existing DNA or add new DNA anywhere in the genome.

Being able to then tap into cells' internal data recorders could become an invaluable tool for scientists.

RG: How is this possible with the CRISPR system? The researchers converted the individual pixels of each image into nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA.

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