Scientists added a GIF and a photo to living DNA


If you thought your day was weird, think about the fact that scientists just added a GIF to the DNA.

After last year’s events, that include Microsoft embedding an Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, OK Go music video and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to a bit of synthetic DNA, scientists proceeded this time to add the GIF to the DNA of bacteria.

A Harvard team of researchers inserted five frames of a horse galloping and a picture of human hand into the DNA of living Escherichia Coli, by using the CRISPR/Cas gene editing tool. It has been said that this study further pushed the boundaries of using DNA to store information.

This data was not even close to Microsoft’s 200 megabytes, the GIF was only 2.6 kilobytes, and the picture was 4-color 56-by-56-pixel image with the size of 706 bytes. Significance of this study is in the fact that the data was added to the DNA of living bacteria and not synthetic DNA.

First step of the process was to convert the pixels of the GI and the image into nucleotides, the basic foundation for DNA, and then encode it onto the genomes. They used the CRISPR/Cas tool to insert bits of the pixels into multiple E. coli cells. Transferring the five frames of the 1880 Eadweard Muybridge-photographed galloping horse into bacterial cells lasted five days.

“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,” said co-author of the study, Seth Shipman adding, “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 answer came as the result of the study. And it was yes. The team sequenced the DNA of the bacteria and managed to reconstruct both the image and the GIF with 90 percent accuracy.

Tech companies probably would not turn to using DNA as replacements for more traditional forms of data storage if there weren’t data storage benefits. Living DNA is great for this because it can last for thousands of years and pointed out to MIT’s Technology Review, some bacteria can survive in extreme conditions, including nuclear explosions and very high temperatures. So these bacteria act like a natural shield of the data.

Living DNA is harder to encode information on since cells are always moving, dividing and sometimes dying off as well which can result in loosing a fair amount of data. Although synthetic DNA is probably the way of the future for storing information, living DNA, as said, has the potential to store much larger amounts of data.

Scientists were more interested in turning the living cells into sensors that track and record information about what’s happening in the cells themselves. That is the reason they used a GIF of a horse galloping. Timing element is involved in the retrieving and sequencing of that GIF, the same as there would be when tracking the changes in a cell. This sort of self-gathered information could be related to tracking the catalysts for cellular evolution, like the formation of neurons in the brain.