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NUS researchers develop biological camera to store images

NUS researchers have built a biological camera to store and organise images on live cells, potentially shaking up the data storage industry

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Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have found a way to store images on live cells and use their inherent biological mechanisms to encode and store data, bypassing the constraints of current DNA storage methods.

The current research on DNA storage focuses on synthesising DNA strands outside the cells, a process that is expensive and prone to errors.

But using live cells, which contain an abundance of DNA that can act as a “data bank”, alleviating the need to synthesise genetic material externally, the NUS researchers have developed a novel system that merges various biological and digital techniques to emulate a digital camera’s functions using biological components.

“Imagine the DNA within a cell as an undeveloped photographic film,” said associate professor Poh Chueh Loo from NUS’s College of Design and Engineering, who led the research project together with the university’s Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation research programme.

“Using optogenetics – a technique that controls the activity of cells with light akin to the shutter mechanism of a camera, we managed to capture ‘images’ by imprinting light signals onto the DNA ‘film’,” said Poh.

The researchers then used barcoding techniques akin to photo labelling to mark the captured images for identification.

Machine learning algorithms were employed to organise, sort and reconstruct the stored images. These constitute the “biological camera”, mirroring a digital camera’s data capture, storage and retrieval processes.

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More crucially, compared with earlier methods of DNA data storage, the team’s innovative system is easily reproducible and scalable.

“As we push the boundaries of DNA data storage, there is an increasing interest in bridging the interface between biological and digital systems,” said Poh.

“Our method represents a major milestone in integrating biological systems with digital devices,” he said. “By harnessing the power of DNA and optogenetic circuits, we have created the first “living digital camera”, which offers a cost-effective and efficient approach to DNA data storage.

“Our work not only explores further applications of DNA data storage but also re-engineers existing data-capture technologies into a biological framework. We hope this will lay the groundwork for continued innovation in recording and storing information.”

The team’s findings, which could potentially shake up the data-storage industry, were published in Nature Communications on 3 July 2023.

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