Sci-fi becomes reality as DNA is turned into ‘living hard drive’ able to store and erase data

The idea of storing information in living cells has been the plot of sci-fi fantasies such as Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves - and today it has become reality

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction fantasies, but scientists have turned living cells into data storage devices – like ‘living hard drives’.

The idea of storing computer information inside living cells – or human brains – has formed the plot of sci fi thrillers such as Johnny Mnemonic (pictured).

But in reality, the cells are likely to become a method for retrieving information from inside the human body.

The information – stored in the DNA code – can be rewritten and erased at will, so could be used to study ageing cells, and even ‘turn off’ cells before they turn cancerous.

The cells would be like tiny computers that can ‘live’ with the body – and could be an incredibly important tool for both computing and medicine.

‘It took us three years and 750 tries to make it work, but we finally did it,’ said Jerome Bonnet, PhD, of his latest research, a method for repeatedly encoding, storing and erasing digital data within the DNA of living cells.

Bonnet, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, worked with graduate student Pakpoom Subsoontorn and assistant professor Drew Endy, PhD, to reapply natural enzymes adapted from bacteria to flip specific sequences of DNA back and forth at will.

All three scientists work in the Department of Bioengineering, a joint effort of the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine.

In practical terms, they have devised the genetic equivalent of a binary digit — a ‘bit’ in data parlance. ‘Essentially, if the DNA section points in one direction, it’s a zero. If it points the other way, it’s a one,’ Subsoontorn explained.

‘Programmable data storage within the DNA of living cells would seem an incredibly powerful tool for studying cancer, aging, organismal development and even the natural environment,’ said Endy.

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