August 01, 2017

Where do you store digital data? Your smartphone, tablet or hard-drive? Or is your storage digital as well, floating in a Cloud? All that will soon be passé - there is a new and quite an unlikely place to store digital data - and it is your body. Rather, in your DNA.

Image Credit: Seth Shipman

Earlier in July, scientists at Harvard successfully embedded a GIF of a moving horse in the DNA of living bacteria, and the data was retrieved after multiple generations of bacterial growth. Storage in synthetic DNA.

Previously, scientists have successfully managed to store books (Sonnets of Shakespeare) in synthetic DNA, but this is the first time that data has been stored and retrieved from a living organism.

Eadweard Muybridge Image Credit: Wikipedia

The original 12-frames of the horse in motion, shot by Muybridge. Image Credit: Wikipedia

The choice of the running horse GIF is a nod to history. An intensely debated topic during the 1870swas whether all four feet of a horse were off the ground at the same time while galloping. In 1872, photographer Eadweard Muybridge set up an array of 12 cameras to take pictures of a horse in motion and captured a moment when all four hooves were up in the air. He further improved this in 1878, when he captured images of a horse in gallop and successfully played it in sequence through a machine of his own invention called zoopraxiscope – possibly the earliest recorded instance of stop-motion animation.

To store the GIF, scientists used a bacterium’s natural defense mechanism against an invading virus. When a bacterium is attacked, it releases enzymes to break the virus's genetic code. To boost its immunity, the bacterium embeds the genetic code into its genome, a process termed as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats).

Using a similar approach, scientist encoded the pixels into DNA and introduced this to the bacteria using electricity. The bacteria reacted to it much like it would do to a virus – and embedded the DNA with the data inside within itself. To retrieve it, the team sequenced the bacterial DNA after five days and ran it through a computer programme which successfully reproduced the original image.

The implications of this discovery is immense. If living cells can be made to record and store retrievable data, microbes could be used to monitor pollution levels, and a person’s medical history can be gauged by scanning their DNA. Most importantly, this discovery could potentially unlock one of humankind’s greatest mysteries – the mechanism of the human brain. Neurons could record information inside the brain during the stages of its development, which could be analysed later to present an accurate idea of what makes the brain tick. This will have far reaching effects not only in medicine, but also in developing more humanoid AI.

Text by Subhalakshmi Roy, The Good City