The Question

Biohackers Have Encoded A Computer Virus Into A Strand Of DNA

DNA is the code your body uses to do...pretty much everything. It's actually not completely unlike computer code, which is how molecular biologists have been able to encode digital data right onto DNA strands. But as our ability to alter DNA grows, so does our ability to use it for nefarious purposes. Now, researchers have found a way to use DNA to turn gene-sequencing supercomputers into multimillion-dollar paperweights.

How To Make A Computer Sick

In a paper presented at the 2017 USENIX Security Symposium, a group of researchers from the University of Washington showed how it was possible to create a molecular sequence in a strand of DNA that could infect a computer with a dangerous virus. In this case, when the gene sequencer reads the DNA strand, the resulting data takes the form of a program that corrupts the gene-sequencing software and hands control of the computer over to the hacker. Sounds pretty scary — just imagine a criminal who could take over law enforcement computers if they ever scanned his genetic evidence.

Fortunately, that's not likely to happen. At least, not anytime soon. In order to pull off this hack, the computer scientists who made it had to turn off their computer's security features, and they even modified the bioinformatics program that read the data to make it more vulnerable to attack. Also, there's the fact that it's not so easy to just change your DNA. Your best bet would be growing your computer-busting criminal from scratch in a test tube for the express purpose of building a computer-destroying supervillain named "Gene Hack-Man." But even then, it's almost impossible to know how all that DNA manipulation would affect poor Gene. He's probably better off without rolling the dice with his genetic structure.

Making The Risks A Reality

Maybe the threat of computer-hijacking DNA is a long way off, and maybe it won't ever be able to be incorporated into a living organism. But the developers are quick to point out that the DNA doesn't have to come from a living organism. Instead, once the technology advances to the point that it can actually infiltrate a non-hobbled computer, nefarious types could simply spill a vial of fake blood made up of the synthesized DNA instead of bleeding it themselves. What's more, gene-sequencing is often carried out not by law enforcement agencies themselves but by the universities that own the expensive equipment. That means that materials to be tested come from multiple outside sources, making them very difficult to vet.

So while the risk isn't especially high yet, it will only grow. That's why a study like this one is so vital — it shows just how possible the hack really is, and how it might be carried out effectively as gene-sequencing becomes even more commonplace.

Want to learn more about gene editing technology? Listen to our conversation with Dr. Sam Sternberg, CRISPR expert and protein-RNA biochemist, on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunesStitcherSoundcloud, and Gretta.

A History Of Hacking

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Written by Reuben Westmaas September 7, 2017