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Scientists Encode Living DNA with Muybridge’s Galloping Horse Film

Harvard scientists successfully recorded five frames of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 galloping horse on living bacteria, and retrieved the images in sequence.

"The Horse in Motion" by Eadweard Muybridge (1878) (via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia)
“The Horse in Motion” by Eadweard Muybridge (1878) (via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia)

Harvard scientists successfully recorded five frames of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 galloping horse on living bacteria, and retrieved the images in sequence. The New York Times states that this is the “first movie ever to be encoded in the DNA of a living cell.” Researchers used the CRISPR system to add the sequential DNA snippets.

One of the scientists, Harvard Medical School synthetic biologist Seth Shipman, told the journal Nature that he was interested in a way to record how cells in the brain take on their identities. The researchers’ paper, called “CRISPR–Cas encoding of a digital movie into the genomes of a population of living bacteria,” was published July 12 in Nature. The team explains how encoding images in Escherichia coli (E. coli) played into a scientific need:

When harnessed, this system has the potential to write arbitrary information into the genome. Here we use the CRISPR–Cas system to encode the pixel values of black and white images and a short movie into the genomes of a population of living bacteria. In doing so, we push the technical limits of this information storage system and optimize strategies to minimize those limitations.

They add that by “combining the principles of information storage in DNA with DNA-capture systems capable of functioning in living cells, we can create living organisms that capture, store, and propagate information over time.” In other words, there’s a possibility to create living hard drives that are stable and sequential.

Ed Yong at the Atlantic points out that recording information in DNA is far from new, it’s “effectively what living things have been doing since the dawn of life itself.” Nevertheless, the purposeful use of DNA for digital data storage is innovative, and follows previous experiments in encoding DNA with books and static images. The Muybridge film, and its ability to be retrieved in chronological order, represents another step in these storage capabilities.

As researchers Shipman and Harvard professor George Church explain in the video below, the choice of Muybridge’s horse wasn’t random, but recalled the photographer’s pioneering experiments in understanding nature, and instills biological movement in another living thing. As Church says, “A horse galloping is biological information over time, and is one of the first examples of recording any motion, especially biological motion.”

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