Such 'designer' cells might be used to monitor water quality in a village or measure the amount of sugar a person eats, they noted.

"Building gene circuits requires not only computation and logic but a way to store that information. DNA provides a very stable form of memory and will allow us to do more complex computing tasks," explained bio-engineer Timothy Lu from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

In synthetic biology, genes are engineered to regulate each other's expression in such a way that they can perform logic operations similar to those in computer circuits.

In previous synthetic-biology attempts, data storage has been laborious to create. It also recorded only the presence or absence of one particular sensory input, and could be used only for limited applications.

In latest research, Lu and his colleague Fahim Farzadfard describe how they can record many types of data simultaneously and can register the accumulation of the input over time the way a car's odometer counts distance.

The stored information can then be read out by sequencing the DNA. They dub their method Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events (SCRIBE).

"It is a nice addition to the toolbox which could complement other memory-storage techniques," Jerome Bonnet, bio-engineer at the Centre for Structural Biochemistry in Montpellier, France, said.

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