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.

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