Boffins store text message inside E coli bacteria using electromagnetic signal – and you'll never guess what it says

Just kidding, you'll totally guess

US scientists claim to have developed a method for storing data directly in the DNA of living bacteria cells by using a new electromagnetic technique.

Although DNA – the biological source code of life – is being widely investigated as a potential digital storage medium, the vast majority of DNA-based data storage approaches rely on synthesised DNA stored outside living organisms.

A group of researchers led by Harris Wang, associate professor at New York's Columbia University, say they have shown that by using electrical signals to tune biomolecules and sensors in cells, they could transfer digital data from a computer to living cells.

Using a CRISPR-based DNA recorder, the team said it was able to write all possible states of a 3-bit binary data stream into living cells, which could be stacked and "barcoded" to increase memory capacity.

"This work establishes a direct digital-to-biological data storage framework and advances our capacity for information exchange between silicon and carbon-based entities," states the research paper published in Nature Chemical Biology.

"Data stored in these 'living hard drives' are stably maintained and effectively protected – over multiple cell generations – from external environments where naked DNA would otherwise be degraded," the paper adds.

As well as a new scope for data storage, the researchers reckon the study could also provide the basis for technologies that hide data "within a natural microbial community to enable an additional layer of data security by obscurity".

Professor Wang told The Register that, as far as he was aware, the work was the first to demonstrate the direct encoding of digital data into living cells.

"Other past methods have to chemically encode the DNA outside of the cells and then put them in the cells in at least a two-step process. Here, we get the cells to recognize external stimuli that are in the form of electrical pulses thus allowing the cells to talk to a computer directly," he said.

The researchers were able to encode a 12-byte text message directly into cell of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria by splitting the text into 12 individual 6-bit characters, with each assigned to two barcoded cell populations holding 3-bit data each. The message the researchers stored? They were unable to resist the temptation to write "hello world!" – a homage to computing history.

DNA contains billions of combinations of just four nucleotides, which means it has the potential to become a slow but dense and long-lasting storage media. Soviet physicist Mikhail Neiman first proposed the idea in the 1960s, but working studies were not developed until the 21st century.

For example, Microsoft and the University of Washington have been collaborating on DNA-based storage since 2015, and claimed to have stored 1GB of data in DNA to date – everything from great literary works to cat pictures. But their work relied on synthesised DNA, and retrieving data from individual strands using a DNA sequencer could take around 10 hours.

Despite the advance to coding data into living cells, Professor Wang pointed out the barriers before adoption of these technologies becomes practical. He said researchers would need to show they could encode the data faster into a greater population of cells at the same time, both of which will increase the throughput and scale of the data streams. Work is also required on developing longer-read sequencing approaches that can help us decode the message more efficiently.

"Ultimately, we're not expecting this to directly compete with real-time data storage systems, but rather allow computers to be able to directly talk to cells and vice versa in real-time for new applications in Biocomputing," he said. ®

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