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Scientists are coming up with a way to "program" data into living bacterias' DNA as a new way of storing data.

Schematic representation of A, B and Z form of DNA
(Photo: Thorwald ? Wikimedia Commons)

Floppy disks, cassette tapes, and VHS were all the rage when it came to data storage in the 70s to early 2000s. But, much like most of us, technology evolved. Today much of the storage devices we've used have become obsolete.

Hard drives, flash drives, and optical drives that can store immense amounts of digital data at a press of a button have taken over. 

Because of the fast-paced world of technology, researchers are trying to develop a way to store data in living bacteria--a storage option that won't go obsolete any time soon.

Seth Shipman, a bioengineer from the Gladstone Institutes and the University of California who was not involved with the work, says to ScienceMag, "this is a really nice step."

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Why Use DNA?

There are several reasons why DNA is an attractive data storage. First, it is 1000 times denser than most compact hard drives, allowing the storage of up to 10 full-length movies in the volume of a grain of salt.

Second, technologies to write and read DNA are expected to become cheaper soon because it is central to biology.

Storing data in DNA is not a novel idea. However, to do so, researchers have to convert binary data into a combination of the molecule's four bases: thymine, cytosine, guanine, and adenine.

Then, scientists would have to use a DNA synthesizer to embed the code onto DNA. On the other hand, the accuracy of DNA synthesis significantly decreases as the code gets longer. Hence data would have to be broken into chunks.

Each snippet is then given an index to help researchers identify its location within the file. Unfortunately, as of today, this technology costs roughly $3500 for every one megabit of data.

Also, vials of DNA used for the process can degrade over time when stored.

To create a longer-lasting and easier to encode platform, researchers are now trying to write data into the DNA of living organisms that copy and pass genes to the next generation.

Living Bacteria and the CRISPR

CRISPR, according to SITN Harvard, is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. This refers to the short partially palindromic repeated DNA sequences in genomes of microorganisms and bacteria. CRISP components are crucial components of the immune system.

Harris Wang, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, together with his team, used a form of CRISP gene editing to insert DNA sequences that encode binary into bacterial cells.

Using various DNA sequence arrangements, the team could encode 12-byte texts saying "Hello world!" inside E.coli cells.

The report published today on Nature Chemical Biology says the team could electrically encode up to 72 bits of data. 

Wang says that the technology is still in its early days of conception. "We're not going to compete with the current memory storage systems," explains Wang. 

The researchers also need to conceptualize a way to prevent their message from degrading as bacteria mutate.

ALSO READ: Everything You Need to Know About Gene Editing


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