DNA Breakthroughs: Ancient Retroviruses and Data Storage

Ancient Retroviruses, retroviruses, data storage

Recent Breakthroughs in our understanding of DNA that involve ancient retroviruses and data storage shed light on our most basic unit.

  • A study reveals a quality-control mechanism in embryonic stem cells, where a gene sequence protects surviving cells from damage-causing sequences.
  • Researchers at the National University of Singapore have developed BacCam, a “biological camera,” using lasers to imprint data in the DNA of living bacteria.

Recent research has shed light on the ancient battle that occurs within the DNA of every embryo. On the fourth day post-fertilization, ancient genetic sequences, derived from infectious retroviruses, awaken from within the embryo, some of which have the potential to cause DNA damage and mutation.

In a study published in PLOS Biology, scientists discovered a quality-control mechanism in embryonic stem cells that ensures only the fittest cells survive. The surviving cells are protected by a gene sequence called HERVH, which originated from another ancient retrovirus. HERVH enables cells to suppress the attack of damage-causing sequences. Without HERVH, cells become more vulnerable to DNA damage and sacrifice themselves to protect the developing fetus. This revelation highlights the intricate interplay between ancient retroviruses and embryonic development, showcasing a classic example of “fighting fire with fire.”

Around 40% of modern genetic material is derived from ancient retroviruses. Most of these retroviral sequences, known as transposable elements, have lost their ability to “jump” into different parts of the genome through evolution. However, one active family of transposable elements called LINE-1 remains active in humans. LINE-1 elements become active when the embryo’s genome activates, cloning and inserting themselves into new parts of the genome. While this is mostly harmless, LINE-1 can occasionally insert itself into crucial parts of the DNA code, leading to DNA damage and impairing the cell’s ability to produce essential proteins. Cells trigger their innate immune response to combat this DNA damage, but if the damage accumulates, the cells undergo programmed cell death.

During the critical window between fertilization and implantation, embryonic stem cells possess pluripotent capabilities, enabling them to develop into any cell type. However, excessive DNA damage prevents these cells from replicating perfectly, hindering the full development of the embryo. As a result, damaged cells undergo apoptosis, clearing the way for the advancement of healthy cells. The study’s computational analyses involved researchers from Germany, Spain, and the U.K, delving into the role of ancient retroviruses in early embryonic development and their harmful and beneficial aspects.

In another breakthrough, scientists at the National University of Singapore have developed a novel method for storing data in DNA. Inspired by a digital camera, they created a “biological camera” called BacCam. Using lasers of red and blue light, the researchers triggered gene expression in engineered bacteria, encoding data into their DNA. The data was labeled with unique ID tags through existing barcoding techniques and could be organized and retrieved using machine-learning algorithms. This innovative approach to data storage offers a cost-effective and efficient alternative to synthetic DNA synthesis.

The BacCam system demonstrated its ability to capture and store multiple images simultaneously. Utilizing living bacteria for data storage is more scalable, cost-effective, and easier to maintain than synthesizing artificial DNA. The researchers hope that their work not only expands the applications of DNA data storage but also paves the way for further innovations in recording and storing information.

These advancements have the potential to enhance our understanding of embryonic development and open doors for future research in regenerative medicine and early pregnancy losses.

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