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King's College London - Health: More than a medical matter

Chromosomes as hard-drives: rewritable memory encoded into DNA of living cells

28 May 2012

By Ruth Retassie

Appeared in BioNews 658

A rewritable memory system using short sections of DNA to hold data in bacterial cells has been developed by synthetic biologists.

Dr Drew Endy and his team at Stanford University in California produced the system, which is detailed in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National  Academy of Sciences), after three years of work and 750 designs.

The technique uses adapted enzymes to flip specific short sequences of DNA back and forth at will on chromosomes in the bacterium E. coli. In practical terms, the team has devised the genetic equivalent of a binary digit - a 'bit' in computing terminology.

'Essentially, if the DNA section points in one direction, it's a zero. If it points the other way, it's a one', paper co-author Pakpoom Subsoontorn explained.

Furthermore, the data can be read out when the bacterium is placed under a light source as the sections glow green or red, depending on their orientation.

The enzymes that flip the DNA sequences - integrase and excisionase - were taken from a bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria. They enable DNA modification so that DNA from a virus can be incorporated into the host.

The difficulty for researchers was in controlling the dynamics of the two agents. 'Previous work had shown how to flip the genetic sequence - albeit irreversibly - in one direction through the expression of a single enzyme', said lead author Dr Jerome Bonnet, 'but we needed to reliably flip the sequence back and forth, over and over, in order to create a fully reusable binary data register'.

The researchers say that biological data storage has many potential applications, including tracking the cell divisions as stem cells become differentiated adult cells, assessing the development of an ageing cell, or even monitoring the development of cancer.

Nonetheless, Dr Endy stressed that the technology is, for now, in its early infancy and such possibilities are far off. 'It's a pretty sad criticism of the state of technology in synthetic biology where we're trying to program the expression of half a dozen genes and it takes 750 design attempts to get that working', he told Nature. 'It's like trying to write a six-line code on a computer that takes 750 debug attempts to work'.



18 November 2013 - by Dr Naqash Raja 
A system that allows researchers to control a tiny cellular transport network has been developed by researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick... [Read More]
30 September 2013 - by Rhys Baker 
Whether painful memories linger or fade may be down to the expression of a single gene, according to researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA... [Read More]
08 April 2013 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
One of the essential components of a computer, the transistor, has been created in a living biological system for the first time... [Read More]
11 February 2013 - by Michelle Downes 
For the first time human embryonic stem cells have been used in a 3D printing process and retained the properties that make them unique... [Read More]
28 January 2013 - by Daryl Ramai 
Digital information can be reliably stored in DNA, say scientists... [Read More]

23 April 2012 - by Ana Pallesen 
Six new kinds of artificial genetic material have been created by scientists. These XNAs, or xeno-nucleic acids, have similar life-building properties to naturally-occurring DNA... [Read More]
02 April 2012 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
Synthetic biology, which uses genetic engineering to build new genomes and organisms, has come under attack in a report published by Friends of the Earth and supported by over 100 other 'public interest' groups... [Read More]
18 April 2011 - by Professor Michael Moran 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation on the ethical issues raised by emerging biotechnologies. Following discussions about the ethical issues raised by synthetic biology, nanotechnology, stem cell research, genomics and other fields besides, the Council realised that these issues could be profitably examined together... [Read More]
24 May 2010 - by Dr Gabrielle Samuel 
As an ex-genetic researcher I was incredibly excited to hear in last week's news that researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute, US, have successfully constructed the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell.... [Read More]
22 February 2010 - by Sarah Guy 
Scientists have created a new way of using the human genetic code, by adding 'designer' amino acids to the proteins in DNA to alter its biochemical behaviour. The research could pave the way to the development of what lead researcher Jason Chin is calling 'a parallel genetic code'.... [Read More]

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