Using DNA as a memory tape


Scientists turn living cells into computers and recording devices.


The new DOMINO technology can combine and layer multiple DNA reading and writing events.

MR.Cole_Photographer / Getty Images

US scientists have developed a new technology they say can turn living cells into computers and recording devices, with programs encoded in their DNA.

DOMINO (DNA-based Ordered Memory and Iteration Network Operator), which works much like the gene-editing system CRISPR, can execute cascades of DNA writing events – where one DNA mutation event triggers another – in response to biological signals.

Writing in the journal Molecular Cell, the team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the technology enables the deep interrogation of biology and the use of engineered cells as devices that can process, monitor, and store information occurring within cells and/or their environment.

Potentially it could be used to create sensors that sit in the body collecting and storing information for health monitoring, or in systems to measure and record contamination in rivers and waterways.

"We need better strategies to unravel how complex biology works, especially in diseases like cancer where multiple biological events can occur to transform normal cell into diseased ones," says senior author Timothy Lu.

"With this method we are using DNA as a memory tape to permanently record biological events that are occur in disease. This technology can give us deeper insights into what signals go up and down over time to drive disease development."

Instead of cutting the DNA at a specific location, as CRISPR does, DOMINO uses a base editing approach to overwrite DNA at particular locations.

“With DOMINO, we can write DNA to change the information encoded into different positions, and then read out this information on the fly, like a read-write head in a computer hard drive" says first author Fahim Farzadfard, who developed the concept.

"We can also combine and layer multiple DNA reading and writing events together to build various forms of logic, such as 'AND' and 'OR' operations, which can then be used to create more complex memory and computing operations in living cells."

It’s early days, and the current recording capacity is limited, but Lu sees great potential in the ability of these “designer cells” to constantly assess their environment and record information that can be read later.

"This type of biocomputing is an exciting new way of getting and processing information," he says "It is part of a longer-term path to take advantage of the natural memory and computing capabilities in cells."

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  1. https://theconversation.com/what-is-crispr-gene-editing-and-how-does-it-work-84591
  2. https://www.cell.com/molecular-cell/fulltext/S1097-2765(19)30541-6
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