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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

For the first time, scientists have used a cell to record what happens in the world around it. They were able to retrieve the information and read it in chronological order.

Why it matters: Changes in temperature and chemical levels inside the body can be recorded in a broad sense, but tools like this are the biological equivalent of using a microscope versus a magnifying glass. "It's the next generation of resolution," says study author Harris Wang, a synthetic biologist at Columbia University.

What it's called: Temporal Recording Arrays by CRISPR Expansion — or TRACE, for short.

How it works: CRISPR isn't just for editing genes. In bacterial cells, CRISPR is a part of the immune system. Some parts of the CRISPR suite cut and store information from the genomes of invading viruses to help bacteria defend against them in the future. Because they register that information in a sort of a stack, with the most recent on the top, it's possible to use CRISPR to record something chronologically.

What they did: The researchers programmed the cells to respond to a biological input by increasing or decreasing the amount of a certain piece of DNA. The DNA contains pre-programmed 'trigger spacers' that cause the CRISPR to start making the record. They found that they were able to accurately reconstruct a timeline of the cell's environment based on information recovered from the cell.

This builds on previous research, where scientists at Harvard used the same mechanism to store and recover a video from E. coli bacteria cells. At the time, they hoped it would serve as proof-of-concept for storing sequential information in bacteria. "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, who conducted the research, told Axios. Four months later, they've done just that.

What's next: The information gathered in the most recent study was relatively simple, but the research shows complex information can be stored and recovered, if it can be recorded. These cells could record the ways a neuron reacts to a medication, or track changes in a gut during an infection or be placed in the environment to monitor the soil. The cells Wang and his colleagues created passively collect data —Wang hopes to create ones that actively record specific types of data and even respond to those changes.

Sci-fi level stuff:

On the extreme end, Wang imagines a future where bacteria throughout our body keep a running 'medical record' of sorts, ready for doctors to recover and read in the event of an illness. But there's still a lot work to be done."We're just starting to engineer bacteria to be able to do something truly useful associated with the human body," says Wang.

Go deeper

Health care ruling saves Republicans from themselves

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Supreme Court saved the health care system from imploding Thursday by dismissing a Republican challenge to the Affordable Care Act. But it also saved the GOP itself from another round of intraparty chaos.

Why it matters: Most GOP lawmakers privately admit (and some will even say publicly) they don't want to deal with health care again. The issue generally isn't a good one for them with voters — as they learned the hard way after they failed to repeal the ACA in 2017.

8 hours ago - Economy & Business

Fed chief's second-term audition

Jerome Powell during a virtual news conference. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell faces a long, hot summer audition for a second term, with senators watching and weighing his response to potential signs of inflation.

Why it matters: The financial system's chief is one of the most powerful in the world. President Biden hasn’t given any public indication whether he’ll renominate Powell, but Democrats close to the administration say there's a chance he'll make an announcement by Labor Day — well before Powell’s term ends next February.

10 hours ago - World

Mapping China's growing global influence

Data: Atlantic Council; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

As of 1980, China was the most influential player in just one country: Albania. Now, China is the leading power across most of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia and is catching up to the U.S. in its own hemisphere.

What we’re reading: That's according to a new report from the University of Denver and the Atlantic Council that seeks to measure the influence countries have on each other, and in so doing offers a dramatic portrait of China's rise.