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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