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Chemical biology

A common bacterium can be engineered to carry coded messages in its genome.

Scientists have stored data in the genomes of living bacteria, which can safeguard information against contamination — and possibly data thieves.

Data can be stored at a high density in DNA molecules, but most current storage methods rely on DNA synthesized in the laboratory. As an alternative, Harris Wang and his colleagues at Columbia University in New York City designed Escherichia coli bacteria that, when zapped with electricity, make distinctive changes to their genomes. The ‘electricity on’ and ‘electricity off’ genomic patterns serve as the equivalent of the 1s and 0s used in digital computers.

The team assigned each letter of the alphabet a specific sequence of ‘on’ and ‘off’ patterns. A precise string of electrical jolts then stored the message ‘hello world!’ in the genomes of the engineered E. coli.

The researchers found that the bacteria, which passed the data down to their descendants, protected the data from degradation in the presence of dirt and other contaminants. The messages could still be read if the E. coli were mixed with other bacterial species, which the authors propose could serve as a form of data concealment.

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