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Seth Shipman / Harvard Medical School

Scientists have successfully encoded a short film on the DNA of a living cell and recovered it later. The experiment, which was described Tuesday in Nature, could pave the way for engineered cells that record and store data.

This is a big deal: DNA is stable, small, requires little energy to maintain and can hold a lot of information. This study shows that not only can complex data be stored on DNA, it can be stored in a living cell and recovered generations later.

But it's more than that: To rebuild a GIF, data needs to be stored with some sort of chronology. The scientists hijacked a system the bacteria themselves use to record information.

"The idea is that eventually we can have the cells go out and collect information, store it in their genome, and later we can interrogate the cells and figure out what they've captured," Seth Shipman, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and an author on the study, tells Axios.

How they did it: CRISPR gene-editing, naturally. When most people talk about CRISPR, it's CRISPR-CAS9, which is a powerful gene-splicing tool. But the CRISPR suite of genes also includes CAS1 and CAS2, which record information about viral genomes in a sort of chronological stack. This was the system Shipman and his colleagues used to create a molecular recorder.

It's cool, but what can it do? There are places where it's hard for humans to go and experiments that it's hard to observe without changing the results. Shipman imagines a genetically engineered mouse whose cells can track the results of a treatment, or a bacteria that could record life in an extremophile environment, or record pollution in a stream. His work was initially funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and Shipman would like to see it used to record brain cells as they specialize and develop. Right now, most of those experiments involve killing or cutting open an animal. Scientists can only see snapshots, with tools like this, they could see the whole story.

Far out: It's a long way off, but if this tech ever comes to fruition, there could be some crazy applications. People have suggested storing data in human cells to be passed on to future generations, or preserving data in a nuclear apocalypse by encoding it in the DNA of radiation-resistant bacteria. In the future, you could be the hard drive — but for now it's just science fiction.

There's a certain poetry to the choice of GIF. The image sequence comes from Eadweard Muybridge's stop-motion series on animal locomotion. Those pictures allowed Muybridge to see things the human eye couldn't — like a horse's four feet leaving the ground while galloping. This study is the first step towards creating tiny, cellular recorders that can gather data on a different world humans struggle to see.

Go deeper

4 mins ago - World

Abbas announces first Palestinian elections in 15 years

Abbas is 85 and in the 15th year of a 4-year term. Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas published a decree on Friday announcing the dates for parliamentary and presidential elections in the Palestinian Authority.

Why it matters: This is the first time in 15 years that such a decree has been published. The last presidential elections took place in 2005, with Abbas winning, and the last parliamentary elections took place in 2006, with Hamas winning.

Updated 10 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — America has tuned out the coronavirus at the peak of its destruction — 1 in 3 people in L.A. County believed to have been infected with coronavirus.
  2. Politics: Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan— Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat — Joe Biden will seek nearly $2 trillion in COVID relief spending.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.
Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Trump blocks banks from limiting loans to gun and oil companies

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big banks are no longer allowed to reject business loan applicants because of the industry in which they operate, according to a new rule finalized on Thursday by the Trump administration.

Why it matters: Wall Street has curtailed its exposure to industries like guns, oil and private prisons, driven by both public and shareholder pressures. This new rule could reverse that trend.