The Ultimate Virus: How Malware Encoded In Synthesized DNA Can Compromise A Computer System
from the digital-code-is-digital-code dept
DNA is a digital code, written not as 0s and 1s (binary) but in the chemical letters A, C, G and T — a quaternary system. Nature’s digital code runs inside the machinery of the cell, which outputs the proteins that are the building blocks of living organisms. The parallels between DNA and computer code are one reason why we speak of computer viruses, since both are sequences of instructions that subvert the hardware meant to run other, more benign programs. Wired reports on new work which brings out those parallels in a rather dramatic fashion:
a group of researchers from the University of Washington has shown for the first time that it’s possible to encode malicious software into physical strands of DNA, so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer.
A certain amount of cheating was involved in order to obtain this undeniably impressive outcome. For example, the researchers took an open source compression utility, and then intentionally added a buffer overflow bug to it. They crafted a specific set of DNA letters such that when it was synthesized, sequenced and processed in the normal way — which included compressing the raw digital readout — it exploited the buffer overflow flaw in the compression program. That, in its turn, allowed the researchers to run arbitrary code on the computer system that was being used for the analysis. In other words, the malware encoded in the synthesized DNA had given them control of a physical system.
While they may have added the buffer overflow exploit to the compression program themselves, the researchers pointed out they found three similar flaws in other commonly-used DNA sequencing and analysis software, so their approach is not completely unrealistic. However, even setting up the system to fail in this way, the researchers encountered considerable practical problems. These included a requirement to keep the DNA malware short, maintaining a certain ratio of Gs and Cs to As and Ts for reasons of DNA stability, and avoiding repeated elements, which caused the DNA strand to fold back on itself.
Clearly, then, this is more a proof of concept than a serious security threat. Indeed, the researchers themselves write in their paper (pdf):
Our key finding is that it is possible to encode a computer exploit into synthesized DNA strands.
However, in the longer term, as DNA sequencing becomes routine and widespread, there will be greater scope for novel attacks based on the approach:
If hackers did pull off the trick, the researchers say they could potentially gain access to valuable intellectual property, or possibly taint genetic analysis like criminal DNA testing. Companies could even potentially place malicious code in the DNA of genetically modified products, as a way to protect trade secrets, the researchers suggest.
If nothing else, this first DNA malware hack confirms that there is no unbridgeable gulf between the programs running in our cells, and those running on our computers. Digital code is digital code.