There are gazillions of microbes around. What if each one were a bit?

Saturday, May 26th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Bioengineering and genomics are making big progresses but most of them are hidden from our perception. We had placed great expectations on the sequencing of the genome 10+ years ago but very little happened.  However, in the back stage researchers have managed to perfect their tools and create new ones. It is thanks to this progress that the cost of sequencing a genome and the time it takes has fell by several orders of magnitude.

Part of the evolution is taken place through discovery of better ways to manipulate DNA strings, usually through enzymes and microbes. As a side effect, researchers are learning to use these manipulated DNA strings and microbes for engineering new behavior (like bacteria feeding on oil to clean up a contaminated sea).

Red and blue fluorescence denotes 0 and 1 information stored in microbes

This capability to change at will DNA strings has been exploited by researchers at Stanford to use microbe to store one bit of information (0 or 1), as if it were a magnetic memory.

The researchers have used two proteins, integrase and excisionase, that can flip a certain part of the DNA of the microbe resulting in a fluorescence in red or in blue. By activating one protein or the other it is therefore possible to associate to each microbe a value, one bit. As an example 0 for red and 1 for blue. By applying the opposing protein one can flip the DNA (and therefore the bit). This transform the microbe into a cell for storing one bit of information. Clearly we are ages away from even dreaming about using microbes for storing our movies (a pity since there are gazillions of microbes all around -and within- us) not to mention the complexity to control the flip and the time it takes. Still this result goes further than mere curiosity.

Researchers say that with this capability to mark a microbe (that is a cell) one can imagine within this decade to crete living markers in the body, and use them to count the number of times a cell is replicating and possibly how close a cell might be to degenerate into a cancer cell.

As with many “unusual” discovery and invention we need to let the future tells us what is the interesting application (if any). What can be said, and that’s the reason for posting it, is that our capability to control nature at its tiniest level keeps improving.