Health

Are you carrying a computer virus in your DNA?

By Oliver Smith 10 August 2017
Peter Ney (right), Karl Koscher (middle)and Lee Organick of the University of Washington.
Summary

Scientists just discovered how to embed a computer virus in genetic code.

In the future your DNA could become the ultimate password, more unique and authentic than fingerprints, iris scans or facial recognition by a vast way.

A single gram of DNA is believed to contain the equivalent of 215 million gigabytes of data (enough to store all the world’s books that have ever, and will ever be written).

And, through the falling cost of genetic sequencing, today you can start unlocking the data in your own DNA with a £100 kit from a pharmacy.

But the code of your DNA is really no different to the code run on your computer or smartphone, albeit far more complex.

And where there’s computer code, there’s the potential for computer viruses.

A DNA virus

Computer scientists at the USENIX Security conference in Canada today unveiled the first computer virus written into a strand of artificial DNA.

When the lab-made DNA is analysed by a gene-sequencing computer its code is unlocked and is turned into a program that then infects and takes control of the computer.

Tadayoshi Kohno, the University of Washington computer science professor who led the project, said it’s really no different to inserting a virus into an email attachment.

But in the future DNA viruses could be a huge threat.

Genetic warfare

Today DNA sequencing takes place in a handful of labs around the world using hugely expensive equipment to sequence thousands of samples – a malicious DNA strand here could wreak havoc.

In the future private companies, which are already creating genetically-modified crops and animals, could even embed computer viruses as a way to protect their trade secrets.

And in the far far future, if DNA does become a medium of storing data, these kinds of exploits could be the next evolution of cyber warfare.

Kohno and his team stress that today no such threat exists, and that their research was conducted in lab conditions which don’t represent the real world.

But, while you might be ok with your computer, bank account or smart home being hacked, you should get ready for a world where your DNA can be part of a cyber attack too.