Why it Matters That Scientists Just Encoded Horse GIFs Into Bacteria

Now E. coli can share GIFs with their offspring!

Seth Shipman

DNA encodes what is arguably the most important data in existence: the instructions for life. But researchers recently found a way to store something way cooler in our genetic code. On Wednesday, Harvard scientists announced they could use it to store GIFs.

In a study published in Nature, the scientists reported that they successfully encoded a GIF in the DNA of Escherichia coli bacteria. They did so using the CRISPR-Cas9 system, a revolutionary gene editing technique in which foreign segments of DNA are incorporated into the genetic code of an organism.

In a poetic union of cutting-edge data storage technology and early filmmaking, the scientists encoded an animated version of Eadward Muybridge’s famous 1878 photo series of a horse galloping into the DNA of E. coli. Seth Shipman, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of famed geneticist George Church, led the team in the process.

Left: The original image that scientists pixelated to make it easier to encode. Right: The image after it was decoded from bacterial DNA. 

Seth Shipman

They started by turning five frames from the series into tiny pixel images. Then, they assigned a DNA code to each pixel of each image in the series. These codes, made of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA — adenosine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine — indicated the position and shade of each pixel. Together, the string of nucleotides spelled out the information needed to encode every pixel of the horse GIF. All novelty aside, what the researchers really did was show that DNA’s natural data-storing ability could be manipulated by humans to store pretty much whatever information we wanted.

The coolest part was that the GIF data was, in a sense, self replicating: In all living beings, DNA is duplicated every time an individual reproduces. In this case, the scientists were able to recreate the image series by decoding the DNA of the offspring of bacteria they’d altered.

While the end result may not be quite as impressive as an OK Go music video (which scientists have already been able to store on DNA), it still recreated the original GIF with over 90 percent accuracy. Previous research on DNA data storage has shown that a single cell’s DNA could hold two Blu-Ray copies of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so maybe we’ll eventually be able to inject ourselves with our favorite movies with our favorite movies at the Red Box kiosk.

All jokes aside, while this sounds like a huge advancement for entertainment technology or data archiving, the researchers have something even more inventive in mind.

“What we really want to make are cells that encode biological or environmental information about what’s going on within them and around them,” Shipman told MIT Technology Review on Wednesday.

With the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing techniques used in the GIF-encoding experiment, scientists hope to develop bacteria that act as biological sensors. “One possible use would be to record the molecular events that drive the evolution of cell types, such as the formation of neurons during brain development,” the MIT Technology Review reports.

Every living thing, from a single-celled bacterium to the blue whale, stores genetic information in the form of DNA, which is ultimately passed on to its offspring. These genetic codes form the basis of human biology, from our physical characteristics to our predispositions to certain diseases. If this research is any indication, we soon won’t be limited to storing boring information like eye color or congenital heart disease.

Abstract: DNA is an excellent medium for archiving data. Recent efforts have illustrated the potential for information storage in DNA using synthesized oligonucleotides assembled in vitro. A relatively unexplored avenue of information storage in DNA is the ability to write information into the genome of a living cell by the addition of nucleotides over time. Using the Cas1–Cas2 integrase, the CRISPR–Cas microbial immune system stores the nucleotide content of invading viruses to confer adaptive immunity. When harnessed, this system has the potential to write arbitrary information into the genome. Here we use the CRISPR–Cas system to encode the pixel values of black and white images and a short movie into the genomes of a population of living bacteria. In doing so, we push the technical limits of this information storage system and optimize strategies to minimize those limitations. We also uncover underlying principles of the CRISPR–Cas adaptation system, including sequence determinants of spacer acquisition that are relevant for understanding both the basic biology of bacterial adaptation and its technological applications. This work demonstrates that this system can capture and stably store practical amounts of real data within the genomes of populations of living cells.
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