Though the invention of moving images and the explosion of cinema seems not so long ago, now there appears a new dimension: real moving images encoded in the bacterial genome!

Scientists at Harvard Wyss Institute were able to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to insert an array of sequences coding for an image into the genome of E.coli populations.

The CRISPR system is a natural system by which bacteria take a piece of an infecting virus’s DNA and incorporate it into its bacterial genome to remember the virus in case of a recurring infection. Scientists are able to hijack this system to insert different genes into a cell’s genome. With this mechanism, the group at Wyss Institute showed that DNA can be a synthetic raw material for storing large amounts of digital information, even images.

Pixel values were stored in a nucleotide code, although the code for the image was too large for a single bacterial genome – thus, many E.coli populations contained pieces of the image in their genomes. When inserted as an array of sequences in the correct order into the genome, the image could be reconstructed when the genome was sequenced!

Of course, the aim was not so that we can watch movies from within the genome! The aim was to create a molecular recorder that collects data of changes and developments within cells. The application of cells storing data are groundbreaking: a molecular recorder would allow for scientists to, for example, follow all the developmental decisions that a differentiating neuron is taking from an early stem cell to a highly-specialized type of cell in the brain, leading to a better understanding of the brain’s functions!

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