DNA typewriter encodes full sentences into living cells

2022-07-11

Forget invisible ink – in the future spies could be sending secret messages encoded directly into the DNA of living cells. Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have demonstrated a “DNA Typewriter” by encoding full sentences into DNA, which may eventually function as a cellular “black box.”

As impressive as our own digital information storage systems are, they pale in comparison to nature’s. DNA is an incredibly dense medium, with a singe gram able to store up to 215 million GB of data – and possibly more, with some tweaking. Unfortunately, writing to and reading from DNA remains a fiddly process.

So the HHMI team developed a new system to record information to DNA easily and sequentially. The DNA Typewriter, as they call it, inserts short segments of DNA into a blank “DNA tape,” one after another from left to right. The team created as many as 4,096 specific symbols that can be inserted, and demonstrated that the DNA Typewriter can lay them out in order to form full sentences that can be read back later.

In their first tests, the researchers spelled out “What hath God wrought?” This Bible verse may sound a bit dramatic, but the phrase was chosen because it was the first sentence transmitted via telegraph using Morse code. The second phrase – “Mr. Watson, come here!” – was similarly historic, as the first line ever spoken over a telephone line. The third and final test sentence was “Bound forever, DNA,” a line from a song by Korean pop group BTS.

But the DNA Typewriter isn’t just for writing quotes into cells. The team says it could eventually be used to track the activity and history of cells, allowing scientists to unravel their development or responses to disease or drugs like a plane’s black box. In experiments, the researchers tracked how one cell divided into 1.2 million over the course of 25 days, analyzing their barcodes to reconstruct their family tree.

The research was published in the journal Nature.

New Atlas, 11 July 2022
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