Biotech Updates

Scientists Use CRISPR to Make Cellular Recorders

February 21, 2018

Scientists from Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts used CRISPR-Cas9 to transform DNA into a sensitive recording device that can document the duration and order of events occurring within cells — and even delete and re-record data in the same genome. The research findings are published in Science.

According to David Liu, a chemical biologist from Broad Institute, the inspiration for the cellular recorders was the flight data recorder in planes. Together with chemist Weixin Tang, Liu harnessed the DNA-slicing power of Cas9 to engineer a cellular recorder using plasmids. They altered three DNA letters in one plasmid, so that it carries a sequence targeted by a guide RNA. The researchers also engineered the bacterium to express Cas9 only when a particular antibiotic is present.

Bacteria do not have the DNA-repair abilities of mammalian cells to fix the damage caused by Cas9, instead, when the plasmid is targeted by Cas9, it is degraded. Then, another plasmid replicates to take the place of the degraded one. The researchers placed the altered and normal plasmids into the cells and measured the relative ratio of the two. The proportion of altered plasmid fell in cells that had been treated with antibiotic, because the cells had begun to degrade the altered plasmids.

This led to an unusually sensitive recorder that allowed the researchers to read out information from as few as ten bacterial cells. The magnitude of change revealed the amount of antibiotic present, as well as the duration of exposure. They also developed techniques for resetting the ratio of altered to unaltered plasmid, erasing the first recording and preparing the cell to document the next event using the same set of plasmids.

Read the original articles from Nature and Science.