Researchers discover how to record movies in living cells using CRISPR

A new CRISPR-based technology is enabling researchers to record and replay digital data, like a short clip of a galloping horse, in a population of living bacteria.

Researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically published a  study in the journal Nature detailing foundational proof-of-principle experiments where the CRISPR system was able to encode complex information such as a digitised image of a human hand, or a sequence of one of the first motion pictures made ever, that of a galloping horse, in living cells.

“We designed strategies that essentially translate the digital information contained in each pixel of an image or frame as well as the frame number into a DNA code, that, with additional sequences, is incorporated into spacers. Each frame thus becomes a collection of spacers,” said Seth Shipman, the study’s first author.

“We then provided spacer collections for consecutive frames chronologically to a population of bacteria which, using Cas1/Cas2 activity, added them to the CRISPR arrays in their genomes. And after retrieving all arrays again from the bacterial population by DNA sequencing, we finally were able to reconstruct all frames of the galloping horse movie and the order they appeared in.”

CRISPR-Cas: Molecular Recording from Wyss Institute on Vimeo.

The researchers say that in the future this molecular recording device could allow them to have cells record the key changes they undergo during their development or when they are or exposed to stresses and pathogens.

Additionally, the Wyss Institute team also say they will focus on establishing molecular recording devices in other cell types and on further engineering the system so that it can memorise biological information.

“Harnessed further, this approach could present a way to cue different types of living cells in their natural tissue environments into recording the formative changes they are undergoing into a synthetically created memory hotspot in their genomes,” said Shipman.

“This groundbreaking technology advances the field of DNA-based information storage by leveraging the biological machinery of living cells to record, archive and propagate that information, in addition to potentially providing a new way to study dynamic biological and developmental processes inside the living body. It is yet another example of bioinspired engineering at its best,” added Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber.

Image courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The new study published in Nature build on the researchers’ previous work where they built the first molecular recorder based on the CRISPR system, which allowed cells to acquire simple bits of chronologically provided, DNA-encoded information.

However, Shipman said: “As promising as this was, we did not know what would happen when we tried to track about a hundred sequences at once, or if it would work at all. This was critical since we are aiming to use this system to record complex biological events as our ultimate goal.”

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Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.