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HEALTHLINE NEWS

Can We Encode Medical Records Into Our DNA?

Harvard researchers have implanted a movie into bacteria DNA using CRISPR gene editing. Someday the process might be used on humans.

encode DNA

In 1878, a series of photographs of a rider on his galloping horse were turned into the first-ever motion picture titled, “.”

Recently, researchers at Harvard University were able to recreate this classic moving image into the DNA of the bacteria E. coli.

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That's right. They encoded a movie into bacteria.

Images and other information have already been encoded into bacteria for years.

However, the Harvard researchers have taken it with the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas system.

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That process allows cells to gather DNA-encoded information chronologically so it can create a memory or image, much like a movie camera does.

“The biggest takeaway from this work is that the bacterial CRISPR-Cas system, which here we have harnessed as a synthetic molecular recording system, is able to capture and stably store practical amounts of real data,” Jeff Nivala, PhD, researcher in the department of genetics at Harvard Medical School, told Healthline.

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How it could be used in humans

By encoding real pictures and a few frames of the classic horse movie, Nivala and his colleagues were trying to present information that would resonate with the public.

The more serious point of their research is to record biological information over time.

Since motion pictures are currently one of the largest data sets, the researchers believe their work lays the groundwork for eventually being able to employ bacteria as mini-cameras that can travel throughout the body, recording unknown information.

Their work changes the way complex systems in biology can be studied. The researchers hope over time recorders become standard in all experimental biology.

Currently, the way to get information out of cells is to watch them or disrupt them by taking data out. With the molecular recorder, the cell is cataloging its own data, meaning it can progress and develop without interference by researchers.

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“I’m most excited about the storage capacity and stability of the system, which are potentially very large and long,” Nivala explained. “This is important because as we build upon our current work, we hope to track very complex biological phenomena over long time periods. Doing so successfully requires vast amounts of stable storage space.”

For instance, he believes researchers can now look into ways to use the technology for practical uses like programming your gut bacteria to record information on your diet or health.

“Your doctor could use this data to diagnose and track disease,” said Nivala.

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Merging technology and biology

While Nivala believes tiny cameras surfing our body and brain will happen in the future, he says it may be a little way off.

Especially since building machines at a molecular scale is a challenge.

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“Realistically, we are probably very far from having every cell in the brain recording its synaptic activity,” he said. “The CRISPR-Cas system is prokaryotic, which means there are certain challenges to be overcome when transferring these genes into mammalian cells, particularly when we don’t know exactly how every part of the CRISPR-Cas system functions in bacteria.”

However, he does think when it happens it will be due to the joining of biology and technology.

“How small can we build a digital recording device using conventional materials like metal, plastic, and silicon? The answer is that we are not even close to achieving the accuracy and precision with which biology is able to engineer nanoscale devices,” Nivala said.

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But we shouldn’t feel bad about this, he added.

“Nature only had a few billion years’ head start after all. That’s why engineers are now turning to biology for new ways to go about building things at the molecular scale. And when you build technology out of biology, it is then much easier to interface and connect with natural biological systems,” Nivala said.

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He is confident that this current work sets the foundation for a cell-based biological recording system that can be coupled with sensors that allow the system to sense any relevant biomolecule.

Encoding personal information into our DNA

Could all of this lead to encoding information into our DNA, such as our medical records or Social Security number, or credit card details?

To some degree, this is already happening at the vending machine company Three Square Market, in Wisconsin. About 50 of the company’s employees accepted their employer's offer to have an electromagnetic microchip implanted in their hands. They can use it to purchase food at work, log into their computers, and run the copy machine.

Resembling a grain of rice in size, the chip is similar to chips implanted into pets for identification and tracking purposes. However, this chip has a working distance of just 6 inches.

BioHax International, the Swedish maker of the chip, wants to eventually use the chip for broader commercial applications.

This is just the beginning of possibilities, according to Nivala, who believes one day all of our most important data will be stored within our cellular DNA.

“In a way, some of it already is. Our genomes are pretty important. But imagine if we could store all of our family medical history, pictures, and home videos within germ line cells, which could then be passed onto our children within their genomes,” said Nivala. “Maybe you could even store your mother’s famous lasagna recipe. I bet future generations would be very thankful for that.”

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