The ability of DNA to store complex information has been showcased by researchers at Harvard Medical School using an historic moving picture. The GIF (a form of computer image that moves as an animation) shows a 19th Century image of a running horse. The galloping mare, filmed in 1878 by the UK photographer Eadweard Muybridge, was one of the very first motion pictures ever made. Now, the clip is again making history by becoming the world’s first GIF to be encoded within bacterial DNA.

The impressive research, reported in the journal Nature, is the latest example of the genome’s potential as a vast storage device. As well as being the first movie to ever be encoded in the DNA of a living cell, it can be retrieved and multiplied indefinitely as the host divides and grows.

The work was undertaken by assigning each pixel in the black and white film a DNA code (nucleotide A, C, T or G) based on its shade of grey. The result was a sequence of DNA molecules that represented the entirety of the film. The researchers then used a powerful new gene editing technique, Crispr, to slip the DNA sequence into the genome of an E. coli bacteria.

Research fellow Seth Shipman said the aim was to determine whether bacterial DNA could record the order in which new information was added to its genome. A movie clip was chosen because it is a good example of a complex piece of information with many parts (pixels) and a time component that is organised over time. The result conclusively proved that recording DNA can capture and replay events in the order in which they occurred.

“Last year we reported some success encoding a handful of sequences and getting some time information back from it,” said Shipman. “But this time we decided to encode real information rather than arbitrary sequences.”

DNA is known for storing the blueprint of biological organisms and researchers are actively investigating its data storage capabilities. In addition, data can be retrieved thousands of years later from DNA (as in the case of fossils). The hope is that this new technology holds the promise of accurate storage and retrieval from biological systems.

“DNA has a lot of properties that are good for archival storage,” said Shipman. “It’s much more stable than silicon memory if you wanted to hold something for thousands of years.”

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