Return to Dilmun

Return to Dilmun (2017). Storing an image in DNA and editing it in the laboratory using in vitro CRISPR-Cas

A digital image is translated into synthetic DNA. The picture’s information stored as molecules allows image editing using the CRISPR-Cas method. The DNA is then sequenced to translate it to an image and view the results.

The CRISPR-Cas system is a prokaryotic immune system, that provides bacteria with adaptive (acquired) immunity against foreign genetic elements, such as bacteriophage genome injection. In the life sciences this system has been modified for efficient genome editing.

In two types of in vitro experiments we performed image manipulation at the level of molecules. In one we made experiments aiming on efficient on-target cleavage with full length guide RNAs (sgRNA), consisting of 20 nucleotides. In the off-target experiments we decreased the efficiency using sgRNAs with 15 and 12 nucleotides, making mutations visible.

We translated a small image (25 x 26 pixels) into DNA using our methods. The aim was to cut out the bull’s closed eyes and insert open eyes, using CRISPR-Cas. The experiments worked: in the first experiment, we saw the eyes were inserted, coming with minor mutations and sequencing errors:

In the second experiment we observed all types of random cuts, mutations and sequencing errors:

The lab work was done at the Open Wetlab of Waag in Amsterdam. I was largely responsible for the labwork, together with Günter spending weeks doing PCRs, making gels and performing clean-ups.

Because of limitations on the use of genetically modified organisms, we chose to a use an in vitro approach, meaning without cells. This proved to be a great challenge, because we had to work extremely clean, keeping the work space clean from DNAse enzymes that break down DNA.

For the experiments we used the Do-It-Yourself Biology tools at our disposal: pressure cookers for autoclaving, camping gas burners to create a sterile air flow, laser-cut gel trays and the OpenPCR.


The picture used is based on a bronze bull’s head from Dilmun, in the present-day Bahrein, ca 2000 BC. Located in between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Dilmun is said to be the basis of a variety of stories, including the Garden of Eden and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Both stories hold a strong morality, warning for the desires for universal knowledge and immortality. Now, with gene-editing technologies, we can question whether the dilemmas posed in these ancient stories once again become relevant. Pondering so, we return to Dilmun.

Picture: CC BY-SA 3.0 Ciacho5 (WikiMedia Commons)

In collaboration with Günter Seyfried, Hansjörg Petschko and Federico Muffatto

Return to Dilmun was shown at Galerie Peithner-Lichtenfels (Vienna), Border Sessions (The Hague), Dutch Future Society Annual Event 2017, the Austrian Embassy in Tokyo, HighLight (Delft).

More documentation can be found on Polycinease: