This is definitively the year of bacteria in terms of scientific discovery and ground-breaking experiments. It was only a few months ago that a new strand of DNA was engineered in a lab, creating an organism with semi-synthetic (“alien”) DNA. And it’s this week’s news that we have accomplished something as incredible, using a bacterium’s genome to serve as long-term storage device for memory.
More precisely, scientists of the MIT have managed to transform a friendly and rather common bacteria into no less than a “genomic tape recorder” that will allow them to write new information into any bacterial DNA sequence.
Apparently, it is not that difficult either. “You can store very long-term information. You could imagine having this system in a bacterium that lives in your gut, or environmental bacteria. You could put this out for days or months, and then come back later and see what happened at a quantitative level.” (Timothy Lu, associate professor of computer science and biological engineering).
How this little biotech wonder can be used in practice? In a variety of ways. As environmental sensors, they could monitoring the ocean for carbon dioxide levels, acidity, or pollutants. More intriguingly, they could be designed to live in the human digestive tract to monitor someone’s dietary intake and to detect inflammation or even cancerous processes.
And you have not to forget space exploration: synthetic biology is the best bet to make travelling to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable. It also could also be “transformative” once explorers arrive at their destination. Translated in plain English, it means that they could adapt and better use local resources to build new, wonderful constructs.
That looks promising indeed.
What is the spooky part in all this? To me, that the genome of some months ago and the information-gathering bacteria are the same. E. Coli. And this time, even without Michael Crichton’s Prey I would have been uncomfortable. We are not far away from engineering these tiny guys and host them inside our guts – where their unmodified, natural cousins are – to help us live better. Playing, for example, a more active role than just detection/observation. Looks like SF? Right on cue: Mira Grant has already written the whole story, and I will shortly reviewing Parasite on this blog. If you’re interested in this subject, and bioengineering takes your fancy, you should read the book too. You’ll like, promised. But be ready to get really, really worried.