Jun 18, 2016 I Brett Tingley

Scientists Turn Bacteria Into Hard Drives

A team of Harvard scientists has developed a method of storing data by manipulating bacterial DNA. The technique, called “Molecular recordings by directed CRISPR spacer acquisition,” was explained in the team’s recent publication in Science. According to the article, this method could not only create a novel storage medium, but also enable long-term manipulation of organisms’ genomes:

The ability to write a stable record of identified molecular events into a specific genomic locus would enable the examination of long cellular histories and have many applications, ranging from developmental biology to synthetic devices.

The method works by taking advantage of the CRISPR/Cas system, in which bacterial DNA cuts out small snippets of an attacking virus’ DNA and inserts it into the bacteria’s own DNA in order to build a resistance to that virus. By creating false viral DNA which contains chosen data, these scientists have successfully manipulated bacteria into absorbing that engineered viral DNA into their own genomes, meaning these bacteria can then pass that data on to subsequent generations.

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CRISPR essentially 'cuts and pastes' segments of DNA into a host's genome

The method has not been perfected yet, but it is still viable. So far, some of the bacteria in trials have only absorbed incomplete sections of the encoded data. However, the data that is absorbed is always sequential, meaning if enough individual bacteria are given the same sequence of data, the full sequence could be deduced through combining the individual sequences that were absorbed.

Up until now, scientists have managed to store only 100 bytes of data in E. coli bacterial DNA, which roughly equates to around 100 characters of text or numerals. However, other species of bacteria have larger genomes that could store larger strings of data. Furthermore, genetically-engineered bacteria could be produced in order to create near-unlimited amounts of storage.

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Lab-grown bacteria could have limitless storage potential

While the current applications are limited, this breakthrough could lead to incredible developments in encryption. A human host could carry an engineered strain of bacteria containing encrypted data in or on her body and easily pass through modern security screenings. That bacteria could be collected later in a lab, along with the sensitive data encoded inside its DNA.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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