Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 22, 2012

Stanford Researchers Encode Rewritable Memory into DNA

After about three years of work and 750 design projects, researchers from Stanford University have successfully encoded a form of rewritable memory into DNA. In fact, synthetic biologists from Stanford have managed to turn DNA into a form of rewritable memory, just like the solid-state memories in our computers. “The arduous work involved in building the system is almost as notable as the achievement itself,” lead researcher, Drew Endy, Stanford University, told Nature.  This work was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Nature, the International weekly journal of science, wrote that synthetic biologists have been seeking biological data-storage systems for a long time because it could be useful in a variety of applications.

While this is not the first rewritable biological storage system to be made, others have used proteins which bond to DNA to perform a similar function, it is the first time such an effect has been achieved in the DNA itself, reported Gizmodo. In fact, Gizmodo reporter, Jamie Condliffe wrote “it could make synthetic digital cells a possibility.

According to the description in Gizmodo, Stanford University scientists spliced genetic elements from a bacterium-infecting virus into the DNA of Escherichia coli. What they were left with is a system which contains a stretch of DNA flanked by sites which indicate to enzymes that the DNA can be "cut" and then "pasted" in reverse orientation. In fact, wrote Condliffe, “the process can be performed over and over, with the team so far demonstrating that is can be done at least 16 times.”

According to Gizmodo, Endy, the lead researcher told Nature that “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. It's like trying to write a six-line code on a computer that takes 750 debug attempts to work."

The Gizmodo report quotes Eric Klavins, of the University of Washington in Seattle, as saying, “But even though it took so long to get, right, it's a big achievement.” Explaining why this finding is so interesting, Klavins told Nature, "What Drew's group can do that others haven't demonstrated is the ability to cycle the memory element over and over, kind of like you can write a bit to a hard drive, read it and change it back over and over again," wrote Condliffe.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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