The CRISPR technology of “tape recorder” bacteria

Some American researchers have used the CRISPR system to create the world’s smallest tape recorder

Written Thursday, by Emanuele Mortarotti

Welcome back to the Dispotech blog, the portal of dental excellence. Today, we would like to speak about the new technologies used to create tiny “tape recorders” to monitor a patient’s health. This recorder, inserted in the E. coli bacteria, is able to memorise its interactions with the surrounding environment in the moment in which these happen. In the following article, proposed just days ago by the United States portal Future, we will speak about this sensational discovery in detail.

In recent times, the CRISPR system (acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which designates a family of DNA segments containing brief repeated sequences coming from viruses, bacteriophages or plasmids, editor’s note) has been used extensively in scientific research, in particular for that which regards the sector of gene-editing; it is even believed that in the future this “biological memory” technology will be used to eradicate pathologies such as Huntington’s disease or anaemia. However, today we wish to speak about something else: we will tell you how this team of researchers at Columbia University created the world’s tiniest tape recorder inserted in a bacterium.

The bacterium in question is Escherichia coli, also known as E. coli. It was chosen from amongst many due to its natural ability to save information on viruses. In their research, the components of the team explained that the changes made to E. coli. allowed the bacterium to record the various interactions taking place with the surrounding environment, in the exact moment they took place and in perfect temporal sequence. “ Once swallowed by the patient, these bacteria are able to record all the changes observed as they journey through the digestive tract, giving scientists an unprecedented view of otherwise inaccessible phenomena”, affirms Harris Wang, assistant professor in the Departments of Pathology & Cell Biology and Systems Biology of the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).

Dr. Wang and the researchers under his guidance used, as mentioned previously, CRISPR-Cas technology, an immune system found in some species of bacteria to insert a plasmid in the “DNA” of E. coli. These insertions gave the bacterium the “ability” to duplicate itself when exposed to a specific signal. Another plasmid was at that point changed and added so that it would serve as a marker at the moment in which the signal was not present.

 “Without the presence of an external signal, only the recording plasmid is active, and the cell adds copies of a spatial sequence to the CRISPR in its genome”, the experts explain. “When an external signal is steered by the cell, the other plasmid is also activated, activating the insertion of its sequence. The result is a combination of sequences that record the times and sequences of the signal according to the setting in which the cell lives”. The research team has named this technology with the acronym TRACE, which stands for temporal recording in arrays by CRISPR expansion: could this be the beginning of a new technique that uses bacteria to study (and hopefully, defeat in a not too distant future) diseases?

Other potential applications can also be found in studies on ecology and microbiology, in which bacteria can be assigned the task of bringing about invisible changes in the body without necessarily affecting that which surrounds them.

“The CRISPR-Cas system is a natural biological device capable of memorising”, continues Professor Wang. “It is excellent from an engineering point of view, because it is a system that has already been honed through evolution to be perfect for storing information”. Considering the future of TRACE, Wang concludes: “My team is already thinking of expanding its research and analysing any markers that might have been altered during the natural conditions or altered (by various pathologies). We’ll start with the gastrointestinal system and then move in all the body’s apparatuses”.

Had you already heard of CRISPR technology? What do you think about it? If you’d like further information, contact Dispotech, your dental excellence.

Emanuele Mortarotti
Author Emanuele Mortarotti

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