Technology allows retrievable information to be recorded directly into the genomes of living bacteria, but will this technology have value in clinical laboratory testing?

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have successfully used CRISPR technology to encode an image and a short film into the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of bacteria. Their goal is to develop a way to record and store retrievable information in the genomes of living bacteria. A story in the Harvard Gazette described the new technology as a sort of “biological hard drive.”

It remains to be seen how this technology might impact medical laboratories and pathology groups. Nevertheless, their accomplishment is another example of how CRISPR technology is leading to new insights and capabilities that will advance genetic medicine and genetic testing.

The researchers published their study in the journal Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Recording Complex Biological Events in the Genomes of Bacteria

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) are DNA sequences containing short, repetitive base sequences found in the genomes of bacteria and other micro-organisms that can facilitate the modification of genes within organisms. The term CRISPR also can refer to the whole CRISPR-Cas9 system, which can be programmed to pinpoint certain areas of genetic code and to modify DNA at exact locations.

Led by George Church, PhD, faculty member and Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, the team of researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., constructed a molecular recorder based on CRISPR that enables cells to obtain DNA information and produce a memory in the genome of bacteria. With it, they inserted a GIF image and a five-frame movie into the bacteria’s DNA.

“As promising as this was, we did not know what would happen when we tried to track about 100 sequences at once, or if it would work at all,” noted Seth Shipman, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, and one of the authors of the study in the Harvard Gazette story. “This was critical since we are aiming to use this system to record complex biological events as our ultimate goal.”

Translating Digital Information into DNA Code

The team transferred an image of a human hand and five frames of a movie of a running horse onto nucleotides to imbed data into the genomes of bacteria. This produced a code relating to the pixels of each image. CRISPR was then used to insert genetic code into the DNA of Escherichia coli (E-coli) bacteria. The researchers discovered that CRISPR did have the ability to encode complex information into living cells.

“The information is not contained in a single cell, so each individual cell may only see certain bits or pieces of the movie. So, what we had to do was reconstruct the whole movie from the different pieces,” stated Shipman in a BBC News article. “Maybe a single cell saw a few pixels from frame one and a few pixels from frame four … so we had to look at the relation of all those pieces of information in the genomes of these living cells and say, ‘Can we reconstruct the entire movie over time?’”

The team used an image of a digitized human hand because it embodies the type of intricate data they wish to use in future experiments. A movie also was used because it has a timing component, which could prove to be beneficial in understanding how a cell and its environment may change over time. The researchers chose one of the first motion pictures ever recorded—moving images of a galloping horse by Eadweard Muybridge, a British photographer and inventor from the late 19th century.

“We designed strategies that essentially translate the digital information contained in each pixel of an image or frame, as well as the frame number, into a DNA code that, with additional sequences, is incorporated into spacers. Each frame thus becomes a collection of spacers,” Shipman explained in the Harvard Gazette story. “We then provided spacer collections for consecutive frames chronologically to a population of bacteria which, using Cas1/Cas2 activity, added them to the CRISPR arrays in their genomes. And after retrieving all arrays again from the bacterial population by DNA sequencing, we finally were able to reconstruct all frames of the galloping horse movie and the order they appeared in.”

In the video above, Wyss Institute and Harvard Medical School researchers George Church, PhD, and Seth Shipman, PhD, explain how they engineered a new CRISPR system-based technology that enables the chronological recording of digital information, like that representing still and moving images, in living bacteria. Click on the image above to view the video. It is still too early to determine how this technology may be useful to pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists. (Caption and video copyright: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.)

“In this study, we show that two proteins of the CRISPR system, Cas1 and Cas2, that we have engineered into a molecular recording tool, together with new understanding of the sequence requirements for optimal spacers, enables a significantly scaled-up potential for acquiring memories and depositing them in the genome as information that can be provided by researchers from the outside, or that, in the future, could be formed from the cells natural experiences,” stated Church in the Harvard Gazette story. “Harnessed further, this approach could present a way to cue different types of living cells in their natural tissue environments into recording the formative changes they are undergoing into a synthetically created memory hotspot in their genomes.”

Encoding Information into Cells for Clinical Laboratory Testing and Therapy

The team plans to focus on creating molecular recording devices for other cell types and on enhancing their current CRISPR recorder to memorize biological information.

“One day, we may be able to follow all the developmental decisions that a differentiating neuron is taking from an early stem cell to a highly-specialized type of cell in the brain, leading to a better understanding of how basic biological and developmental processes are choreographed,” stated Shipman in the Harvard Gazette story. Ultimately, the approach could lead to better methods for generating cells for regenerative therapy, disease modeling, drug testing, and clinical laboratory testing.

According to Shipman in the BBC News article, these cells could “encode information about what’s going on in the cell and what’s going on in the cell environment by writing that information into their own genome.”

This field of research is still new and its full potential is not yet understood. However, if this capability can be developed, there could be opportunities for pathologists and molecular chemists to develop methods for in vivo monitoring of a patient’s cell function. These methods could prove to be an unexpected new way for clinical laboratories to add value and become more engaged with the clinical care team.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

New CRISPR Technology Takes Cells to the Movies

Molecular Recordings by Directed CRISPR Spacer Acquisition

GIF and Image Written into the DNA of Bacteria

Pro and Con: Should Gene Editing be Performed on Human Embryos?

CRISPR Gene Editing Can Cause Hundreds of Unintended Mutations

Intellia Therapeutics Announces Patent for CRISPR/Cas Genome Editing in China

Everything You Need to Know about CRISPR, the New Tool that Edits DNA

Breakthrough DNA Editor Born of Bacteria

Patent Dispute over CRISPR Gene-Editing Technology May Determine Who Will Be

Top Biologists Call for Moratorium on Use of CRISPR Gene Editing Tool for Clinical Purposes Because of Concerns about Unresolved Ethical Issues