Ray Kurzweil is fond of comparing DNA to human source code. A group of researchers at Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering have devised a way to use that source code to store write and erase new data into DNA based on some of the simplest principles of binary coding. The process uses an enzyme adapted from bacteria that affixes its to DNA and which can be used as a kind of switch to write in code.
In the computer world, their work would form the basis of what is known as non-volatile memory — data storage that can retain information without consuming power. In biotechnology, it is known by a slightly more technical term, recombinase-mediated DNA inversion, after the enzymatic processes used to cut, flip and recombine DNA within the cell.
The team calls its device a “recombinase addressable data” module, or RAD for short. They used RAD to modify a particular section of DNA with microbes that determines how the one-celled organisms will fluoresce under ultraviolet light. The microbes glow red or green depending upon the orientation of the section of DNA. Using RAD, the engineers can flip the section back and forth at will.
“I’m not even really concerned with the ways genetic data storage might be useful down the road, only in creating scalable and reliable biological bits as soon as possible,” the team’s Drew Endy said. “Then we’ll put them in the hands of other scientists to show the world how they might be used.”
While this new technology might inspire all sorts of fantastical possibilities, the team is less interested in what sorts of breakthroughs might come from its application and wants to make sure its usable by as wide a group of scientists as possible.