In what reads like science fiction becoming reality, researchers at the University of Washington have been able to successfully infect a computer with malware coded into a strand of DNA. In order to see if a computer could be compromised in that way, the team included a known security vulnerability in a DNA-processing program before creating a synthetic DNA strand with the malicious code embedded. A computer then analyzed the “infected” strand, and as a result of the malware in the DNA, the researchers were able to remotely exploit the computer. The results were published in a recent paper.
“We wanted to understand what new computer security risks are possible in the interaction between biomolecular information and the computer systems that analyze it,” the researchers wrote, led by Tadayoshi Kohno, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington.
The basic structural units of DNA are called nucleotides, and they’re stored as letters A, C, G, and T. Sequencing allows scientists to determine the order of the nucleotides, which in turn means scientists are able analyze the genetic information carried in the strands. The cost of sequencing has sharply fallen by over 100,000 times in the last 10 years.
After sequencing, this DNA data is processed and analyzed using many computer programs. Modern technology means hundreds of millions of DNA strands can be processed at the same time. Though taking over computers using DNA seems like something out of the movies, creepily played out in real life, the researchers say there’s no reason for concern. “We have no evidence to believe that the security of DNA sequencing or DNA data in general is currently under attack. Instead, we view these results as a first step toward thinking about computer security in the DNA sequencing ecosystem,” the scientists said.
“A primary goal of this study was to better understand the feasibility of DNA-based code injection attacks. We also know of no efforts by adversaries to compromise computational biology programs,” they explain.
Just last month, scientists revealed they were able to insert a GIF of a horse into the DNA of living bacteria.