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article imageOp-Ed: Bacteria as memory storage – E. coli’s new gig

By Paul Wallis     Nov 15, 2014 in Science
E. coli are tough bacteria. There are a lot of different strains, but this time they’re working for us. The new approach to managing medical and environmental data is to store it in bacterial genomes.
It’s an interesting idea from MIT, and it comes with some customization options.
The basic thrust of this new research is to use a “recombinase” enzyme, which adds a specific sequence of DNA to a specific site, in the presence of a particular molecule. (This means that if Substance A is encountered the DNA code is added to Site A, etc., recording the incident.) The information is then passed on from generation to generation of E. coli, which is about as good in terms of determining the time of the incident as tree ring dating. All you need to know is how to read the incident record.
MIT are pretty happy with the results, too. The potential uses of this system are exceptionally broad. In theory, you could maintain a continual monitoring of any environment where E. coli can exist. You can also arrange for a programmed response to a particular incident. For example, one form of DNA sequence automatically triggered an antibiotic resistance gene. Researchers then used antibiotics to determine the number of cells which got the resistant coding.
Another option is to add the sequence to a non-functional part of the genome. The information can then be retrieved by gene sequencing. The E. coli can be used to target specific phenomena within a wide range of environments, from the ocean to the human gut.
(An interesting point here is that the bacteria can deliver multiple values in different environments, providing a far more accurate and detailed analytical tool. “Mapping with bacterial information” could be a very cheap, very straightforward way of managing environmental Big Data.)
There’s more to this than bacterial sensors. Cell science is also a likely candidate for benefits from this technology. The new technology can be used to make bacteria viable disease sensors in almost real time. In theory, any cell could be used as a recorder. That means that bacterial information can be used for meaningful diagnosis, analysis and statistical number crunching.
For the full publication and some pretty fascinating graphics describing the recording process, see Science, here.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Mit, E coli, DNA genome recording, Selective genetic coding, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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