July 13 (UPI) -- Scientists have played back a movie encoded in the DNA of living cells, a first.
The feat is the latest breakthrough in the effort to computerize biomolecular resources. Researchers have previously used DNA to store and replicate a series of digital files.
"We want to turn cells into historians," neuroscientist Seth Shipman, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in a news release. "We envision a biological memory system that's much smaller and more versatile than today's technologies, which will track many events non-intrusively over time."
Shipman and his colleagues hope to one day turn cells into mini secretaries, capable of recording the biomolecular action happening in and around them. The cells would store the recorded events in their DNA to be sequenced and analyzed at a later date. Such sequential data could offer a running history of changes in the expression of genes over time.
Successfully storing a sequential recording like a movie is a key first step in the process.
If scientists had access to a record of genetic changes within a single cell, they could use the transcriptional steps to model disease and design new therapies.
To begin their proof-of-concept study, researchers used CRISPR gene editing technology to encode an image of the human hand in DNA spliced into the genome of bacterial cells. Next, scientists encoded images of a race horse in motion.
CRISPR gene editing techniques tap into the natural immune system of a bacterial cell. CRISPR sequences provide genetic memories of viral infections, cutting out foreign sequences and storing them in the bacteria's genome so the cell can recognize future invaders and defend against attacks. Scientists can hijack the mechanism in order to take out specific genetic sequences and replace them with manipulated DNA coding.
"The sequential nature of CRISPR makes it an appealing system for recording events over time," Shipman said.
Scientists used the CRISPR method to splice a series of five frames from the series of moving horse images. When researchers sequenced the bacterial DNA, they were able to retrieve and replay the moving images with 90 percent accuracy.
Researchers described the feat this week in the journal Nature.
"We want to use neurons to record a molecular history of the brain through development," said Shipman. "Such a molecular recorder will allow us to eventually collect data from every cell in the brain at once, without the need to gain access, to observe the cells directly, or disrupt the system to extract genetic material or proteins."