Bacteria become genomic tape recorders


Engineered E. coli can store long-term memories of chemical exposure, other events in their DNA.

MIT engineers have transformed the genome of the bacterium E. coli into a long-term storage device for memory. They envision that this stable, erasable, and easy-to-retrieve memory will be well suited for applications such as sensors for environmental and medical monitoring.

“You can store very long-term information,” says Timothy Lu, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and biological engineering. “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.”

The new strategy, described in the Nov. 13 issue of the journal Science, overcomes several limitations of existing methods for storing memory in bacterial genomes, says Lu, the paper’s senior author. Those methods require a large number of genetic regulatory elements, limiting the amount of information that can be stored.

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F. Farzadfard and T. K. Lu, “Genomically encoded analog memory with precise in vivo DNA writing in living cell populations,” Science, 346:1256272 November 14, 2014. [pdf] [abstract]

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