Researchers at Harvard University have figured out a way to embed moving images into the DNA of E. coli bacteria. The team described their process in the journal Nature.
It's a setup any spy would love: a code within a code. The paper authors see bacterial DNA as a form of information storage, almost like a computer's hard drive. As the science of gene editing technology advances, we're learning how to fit more—and more complex—information on the same equipment.
Enabling this advancement is a gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas, which gives scientists access to certain immune-activating regions of bacterial DNA. Researchers have already used that access to engineer malaria-resistant mosquitoes and track down disease-causing pathogens.
Other scientists have successfully inserted secret messages in E. coli's genetic blueprints. Some have even gotten the bacteria to hold pictures. But until now, none of those pictures have moved.
The Harvard team wanted to see how far CRISPR-Cas could get them. First, they had to select their images. And while some researchers may have taken this opportunity to immortalize a goofy cat GIF, the Harvard team wanted the content of the first-ever bacterial home movies to have significance.
Eadweard Muybridge was a 19th-century photographer whose work blurred the line between art and science. Muybridge pushed the camera technology of the time to its limits, using what was then high-speed imaging to capture incredible shots of people and other animals in motion. His photos showed us the potential of both cameras and our bodies.
And so the authors of the new paper thought it would be appropriate to make their first moving image a Muybridge—specifically, his groundbreaking image of a horse in full gallop. They converted the images to pixels, then converted those pixels to nucleotides, which are often called the building blocks of DNA. They popped those nucleotides into the bacteria's genetic code, then ran the DNA through a sequencer to see if the pixel information stayed in place. It did.
But lead author Seth Shipman says printing images is just the beginning. He envisions a world in which our cells work like microscopic cameras, recording the state and goings-on inside our bodies.
"What we want this system to be used for, eventually, is not to encode information that we already have, but for a way for cells to go out and gather information that we don't have access to," Shipman told Popular Science. "If we could have them collect data and then store that data in their genomes, then we might have access to completely new types of information."
If that concept sounds kind of creepy to you, we have some good news: It's still a long way off.
[h/t Popular Science]