Science breaks the news again. What if, instead of storing information in computers, we were able to do so in living organisms? This has been proven to be possible by a group of researchers from Harvard University who have shown that, not only can code lines be stored in living bacteria, but this data can also be passed on to the next generation in the form of genetic material.
The team used E. coli to store 100 bytes of data. This quantity might potentially be increased in the future (to around 3,000 bytes) as the scientists are positive that much more can be ‘uploaded’ into the organism. The amazing feat was achieved through the “editing process” of the bacterium: it naturally has the ability to include part of viral DNA into its own genome to be able to recognise a particular virus in case it comes across it in the future – this “security measure” is hereditary, and is passed on from one generation of bacteria to another such that bacterial populations can eventually resist attack from viruses.
The Harvard team created their own code, and tricked the bacteria into thinking of it as a virus. It was, thus, incorporated into the bacterial genome. This code can be anything: from a computer program to a text message.
Lead researcher Seth Shipman explains that placing this data into a living cell was a challenge. In a statement to Popular Mechanics, he explains that they have used “nature’s own methods to write directly onto the genome of a bacterial cell“. As a consequence, this message was copied and pasted into the following generations of the E. coli.
This method also makes the process of retrieving the data easier because it is stored in a sequential manner; getting the data back is then done by genotyping.
However, a limitation is that a large sample size is needed to receive the data in its totality because not all of the bacteria take in all of the data.
The original paper is published in the journal Science.