In essence, deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA for short, is a genetic database for storing information. This genetic database forms the masterplan for the building blocks of all living things from a cellular level all the way to organs and tissues. Utilising its fundamental basis of data storage, scientists have been leveraging this mechanism to encode DNA to store other forms of information such as books, audio recordings and images. As research and experimentation on DNA storage begins to grow, so does the potential to store a greater variety of data and programs. One such example is the University of Washington’s recent foray into encoding DNA with a computer virus that is fully active.

Writing a virus into DNA

Wherein most digital data is stored in a binary coding system of 1s and 0s, DNA stores its data in the form of a quaternary nucleotides: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T) and cytosine (C). Knowing this, all the researchers at the Washington team had to convert the quaternary nucleotides into a ‘binary form’ – and sequence the exact code for the computer virus into the DNA’s code.

When those recoded DNA strands were sequenced by a genetic analyser, the computer virus would become active and launch an attack against the computer system. Despite being the first team to successfully arm a DNA sequence with a virus, this success has proven to be a double-edged sword with the success of proving that DNA could be indeed used in the future, as a basis of cyber-attacks.

For now, the virus would only become active when read by a genetic analyser, a machine not commonly seen outside the scientific field.
For now, the virus would only become active when read by a genetic analyser, a machine not commonly seen outside the scientific field.

Nevertheless, the research team remains optimistic about the findings – serving as a precautionary measure of future cyber-attacks and the potential that DNA encoding holds. “The present-day threat is very small, and people don’t need to lose sleep immediately,” says Tadayoshi Kohno, a computer security expert, who led the team. “But we wanted to know what was possible and what the issues are down the line.” Currently, the virus-encoded DNA is only able to affect genetic sequencing machines, which read this exact strand of DNA.

While genetic sequencing has become considerably cheaper and the equipment involved significantly smaller – they remain relatively uncommon in a normal day-to-day setting. They are nowhere near as pervasive as thumb drives or internet files, which are often used to transfer viruses into computer systems. Moreover, the glitch elicited by the DNA virus onto the genetic sequencers can easily be spotted and rectified by the operators of the system – even without prior knowledge of the virus.

DNA – the future cyber weapon?

While the present proof of concept does not ring any major alarm bells; it is the future implications of these DNA viruses, which remain to be the most perturbing. Like any new malware in a cyber arsenal, they often start out benign; but quickly grow into something more malicious as programmers continue to work on and discover their potential.

This growth is compounded further by the exponential growth of computer’s processing power. Early examples of using these virus-encoded DNAs include compromising a crime scene with the DNA. When forensics team analyse the evidence for genetic data, these virus-encoded DNAs may provide false data or even wipeout the existing evidence.

Meanwhile, another creative use of the DNA would be to manipulate an individual’s genetic makeup, as explained by Peter Ney, a member of the research team, “If you can compromise [the sequencing pipeline], you could steal that data, or manipulate it to make it seem like people have genetic diseases they don’t have.”

Last but not least, these virus-encoded DNAs could be used for corporate sabotage especially for those within a scientific and medical field. The inclusion of this DNA into a competitor’s research could render their data wildly incorrect – or, worse still, halt all existing progress to the research. While the future certainly looks grim, the objective of the team was not to create a new cyber-weapon or strike fear in the general populace. Rather, quite the opposite. “We want to understand and anticipate what the hot new technologies will be over the next 10 to 15 years – to stay one step ahead of the bad guys,” echoes Kohno.

The research carried out by Tadayoshi Kohno and his team at the University of Washington have successfully encoded a virus into DNA. While potentially harmful, the virus would only become active when read by a genetic analyzer and, even then, can be counteracted easily. Nevertheless, this proof of concept gives us an idea of how our DNA may be armed in the future as part of the ever growing battle in cyber-warfare. “My hope is that over the next five to 10 years, people take a strong interest in DNA security, and proactively harden their systems against adversarial threats,” says Kohno. “We don’t know of such threats arising yet and we hope that they’ll never manifest.” MIMS

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