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Scientists Put a GIF Inside Living Bacteria

Researchers at Harvard University have figured out a way to embed moving images into the DNA of E. coli bacteria. The team described their process in the journal Nature.

It's a setup any spy would love: a code within a code. The paper authors see bacterial DNA as a form of information storage, almost like a computer's hard drive. As the science of gene editing technology advances, we're learning how to fit more—and more complex—information on the same equipment.

Enabling this advancement is a gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas, which gives scientists access to certain immune-activating regions of bacterial DNA. Researchers have already used that access to engineer malaria-resistant mosquitoes and track down disease-causing pathogens. 

Other scientists have successfully inserted secret messages in E. coli's genetic blueprints. Some have even gotten the bacteria to hold pictures. But until now, none of those pictures have moved.

The Harvard team wanted to see how far CRISPR-Cas could get them. First, they had to select their images. And while some researchers may have taken this opportunity to immortalize a goofy cat GIF, the Harvard team wanted the content of the first-ever bacterial home movies to have significance.

Eadweard Muybridge was a 19th-century photographer whose work blurred the line between art and science. Muybridge pushed the camera technology of the time to its limits, using what was then high-speed imaging to capture incredible shots of people and other animals in motion. His photos showed us the potential of both cameras and our bodies.

And so the authors of the new paper thought it would be appropriate to make their first moving image a Muybridge—specifically, his groundbreaking image of a horse in full gallop. They converted the images to pixels, then converted those pixels to nucleotides, which are often called the building blocks of DNA. They popped those nucleotides into the bacteria's genetic code, then ran the DNA through a sequencer to see if the pixel information stayed in place. It did.

But lead author Seth Shipman says printing images is just the beginning. He envisions a world in which our cells work like microscopic cameras, recording the state and goings-on inside our bodies.

"What we want this system to be used for, eventually, is not to encode information that we already have, but for a way for cells to go out and gather information that we don't have access to," Shipman told Popular Science. "If we could have them collect data and then store that data in their genomes, then we might have access to completely new types of information."

If that concept sounds kind of creepy to you, we have some good news: It's still a long way off.

[h/t Popular Science]

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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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entertainment
Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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