Bacteria become 'genomic tape recorders'

November 13, 2014 by Anne Trafton
SCRIBE (Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events) enables the use of genomic DNA as tape recorders for memorizing event histories in living bacterial populations. Credit: Mojtaba Amin

MIT engineers have transformed the genome of the bacterium E. coli into a long-term storage device for memory. They envision that this stable, erasable, and easy-to-retrieve memory will be well suited for applications such as sensors for environmental and medical monitoring.

"You can store very long-term information," says Timothy Lu, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and . "You could imagine having this system in a bacterium that lives in your gut, or . You could put this out for days or months, and then come back later and see what happened at a quantitative level."

The new strategy, described in the Nov. 13 issue of the journal Science, overcomes several limitations of existing methods for storing in bacterial genomes, says Lu, the paper's senior author. Those methods require a large number of genetic regulatory elements, limiting the amount of information that can be stored.

The earlier efforts are also limited to digital memory, meaning that they can record only all-or-nothing memories, such as whether a particular event occurred. Lu and graduate student Fahim Farzadfard, the paper's lead author, set out to create a system for storing analog memory, which can reveal how much exposure there was, or how long it lasted. To achieve that, they designed a "genomic tape recorder" that lets researchers write new information into any bacterial DNA sequence.

Stable memory

To program E. coli bacteria to store memory, the MIT researchers engineered the cells to produce a recombinase enzyme, which can insert DNA, or a specific sequence of single-stranded DNA, into a targeted site. However, this DNA is produced only when activated by the presence of a predetermined molecule or another type of input, such as light.

SCRIBE (Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events) enables the use of genomic DNA as tape recorders for memorizing event histories in living bacterial populations. Credit: Yan Liang

After the DNA is produced, the recombinase inserts the DNA into the cell's at a preprogrammed site. "We can target it anywhere in the genome, which is why we're viewing it as a , because you can direct where that signal is written," Lu says.

Once an exposure is recorded through this process, the memory is stored for the lifetime of the bacterial population and is passed on from generation to generation.

There are a couple of different ways to retrieve this stored information. If the DNA is inserted into a nonfunctional part of the genome, sequencing the genome will reveal whether the memory is stored in a particular cell. Or, researchers can target the sequences to alter a gene. For example, in this study, the new DNA sequence turned on an , allowing the researchers to determine how many cells had gotten the memory sequence by adding antibiotics to the cells and observing how many survived.

By measuring the proportion of cells in the population that have the new DNA sequence, researchers can determine how much exposure there was and how long it lasted. In this paper, the researchers used the system to detect light, a lactose metabolite called IPTG, and an antibiotic derivative called aTc, but it could be tailored to many other molecules or even signals produced by the cell, Lu says.

The information can also be erased by stimulating the cells to incorporate a different piece of DNA in the same spot. This process is currently not very efficient, but the researchers are working to improve it.

Bacterial sensors

Environmental applications for this type of sensor include monitoring the ocean for carbon dioxide levels, acidity, or pollutants. In addition, the bacteria could potentially be designed to live in the human digestive tract to monitor someone's dietary intake, such as how much sugar or fat is being consumed, or to detect inflammation from .

These engineered bacteria could also be used as biological computers, Lu says, adding that they would be particularly useful in types of computation that require a lot of parallel processing, such as picking patterns out of an image.

"Because there are billions and billions of bacteria in a given test tube, and now we can start leveraging more of that population for memory storage and for computing, it might be interesting to do highly parallelized computing. It might be slow, but it could also be energy-efficient," he says.

Another possible application is engineering brain cells of living animals or human cells grown in a petri dish to allow researchers to track whether a certain disease marker is expressed or whether a neuron is active at a certain time. "If you could turn the DNA inside a cell into a little memory device on its own and then link that to something you care about, you can write that information and then later extract it," Lu says.

Explore further: Cell circuits remember their history: Engineers design new synthetic biology circuits that combine memory and logic

More information: "Genomically encoded analog memory with precise in vivo DNA writing in living cell populations," by F. Farzadfard et al. Science, 2014.

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5 / 5 (2) Nov 13, 2014
alright , who's going to be the first clown to write their ascii nom de plum into the phylogentic record
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 14, 2014
Wasn't there a company in USA that used a dna sequencer to make a genome from scratch but added an email address & other digital data into part of the non-coding DNA. The Genome was then inserted in an effectively blank cell which had previous dna removed...So if this bacterium replicates we can have any number of digital data around the place mutating/combining with the 10 million or so species of existing bacteria... !

Found it
not rated yet Nov 14, 2014
And the earth is a biological computer which is calculating the "meaning of life and everything". The answer is "42"
1 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2014
winthrom offered
And the earth is a biological computer which is calculating the "meaning of life and everything". The answer is "42"
Which as suggested raised the even bigger question, articulating a little of that here:-

42 what ?

Maybe the puter was really saying forty two - because it misread the question & answered its age OR it meant forty too as it had a partnership with the software writer & they were both 40 OR it was starting to say "forte to.." but got cutoff due to a power failure when it was going to report on the skill of interpreting the question in all universal context as 'forte' has to do with a person' strongest skill OR maybe the puter was being overly natural & spiritual trying to interpret 42 as six x seven really saying "sex x seven (each day)" or "sex x saves", anyway such a long time later what language was it in ?

Endless isnt it when its only humans here that seem to have clear abstract representation for numerical relationships.

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