A bunch of Harvard researchers uploading a GIF of a galloping horse in an E. coli bacteria.
In the present-day, GIFs can easily be categorized as a standalone social media language. I would rather send you a sassy GIF reaction than typing a boring “ok”. And it’s not just you and me who realised the importance of GIFs in modern communication, scientists are acknowledging it too. For the first time ever, researchers have created a living library, embedded an E. coli bacteria; and what does this living library consist of? A horse GIF.
In a paper published in Nature, Harvard researchers describe using a Crispr system to insert bits of DNA encoded with photos and a GIF of a galloping horse into live bacteria. When the scientists retrieved and reconstructed the images by sequencing the bacterial genomes, they got back the same images they put in with about 90 percent accuracy.
The method is specific to bacteria, but Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist and biologist at Columbia University who was not involved in the study, says it represents a scalable way to host information in living cells that could eventually be used in human cells.
Up till now, most of the research that was conducted into using DNA for storage involved synthetic DNA made by scientists. And this horse GIF, which is just a tiny 36 x 26 pixels in size, represents a relatively small amount of information compared to what scientists have so far been able to encode in synthetic DNA. However, its is essential to understand that it is way more challenging to upload information into living cells than synthesized DNA, because live cells are constantly moving, changing, dividing, and dying off.
Although, interestingly, Erlich points out the benefit of hosting data in living cells like bacteria, saying that they tend to offer better protection. For instance, some bacteria still thrive after nuclear explosions, radiation exposure, or extremely high temperatures.
Beside storing digital information as a use case scenario of this experiment, another researcher who was involved in the study says he wants to use the technique to make “living sensors” that can record what is happening inside a cell or in its environment.
Naturally, this technique won’t be used anytime soon to load large quantities of data into your body, it could prove to be a valuable research tool. But, right here, I want to leave you with the thought of how this could possibly turn the Black Mirror episode ‘The Entire History of you” (refer below) into reality.