Scientists “hack” a computer using DNA: Malware was encoded in strands of genetic code
In what sounds like a script from a dystopian sci-fi thriller, scientists have “hacked” a computer using DNA.
By encoding malware into strands of the human DNA, the researchers were able to infect a gene-sequencing machine by corrupting the software it runs on.
The research was carried out by a team led by Paul G Allen from the school of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, and will be presented at the USENIX Security Symposium later today.
“DNA stores standard nucleotides – the basic structural units of DNA – as letters such as A, C, G, and T,” explained Allen. “After sequencing, this DNA data is processed and analysed using many computer programs. It is well known in computer security that any data used as input into a program may contain code designed to compromise a computer. This led us to question whether it is possible to produce DNA strands containing malicious computer code that, if sequenced and analysed, could compromise a computer.”
To construct the malware, the team translated a computer command into a short stretch of 176 DNA letters. Copies of the DNA were ordered online. This command was designed to target a particular flaw that the team had previously discovered in the DNA processing programme. The synthetic strands were passed through a sequencing machine, which converted the gene letters into binary digits, 0s and 1s.
When this strand was sequenced and processed by the vulnerable program, the code infected the software and took control of the computer doing the processing. The researchers were then able to remotely exploit this machine using adversarial synthetic DNA.
“The results from our study show it is theoretically possible to produce synthetic DNA that is capable of compromising a computer system,” Allen continued. “For now, these attacks are difficult in practice because it is challenging to synthesise malicious DNA strands and to find relevant vulnerabilities in DNA processing programs. Thus, while scientifically interesting, we stress that people today should not necessarily be alarmed, as we discuss both above and below.” Alphr has contacted the researchers for more information.
READ NEXT: What is CRISPR?
This is the latest research into the multifaceted uses of DNA in coding and storage published in recent months. In July, scientists successfully encoded a GIF of Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering galloping horse clip into the DNA of living cells. The result created a so-called organic GIF, and is the first step in what researchers are referring to as a “molecular recorder”, able to exist, observe and capture information within living cells.
The team, funded by the National Institutes of Health, used the gene-editing technology CRISPR to prove that any arbitrary sequential information – not just genetic information – could be encoded into a genome. They first did this with a single image, of a human hand, and with the help of a bacteria’s immune defences.
When bacteria is attacked by a virus, its cells produce enzymes to cut and process the virus’s genetic code. It does this to remember the invader, taking a portion of the virus’ genetic code and adding it to its own genome, like putting heads on pikes. As time passes, the bacteria’s genome grows, more genetic code from viruses are added, and more heads are stacked on the pike. The Muybridge clip was intended to show the scope for the CRISPR system to turn living cells into recording devices, pulling information from their surroundings and keeping a sequential record within their genome. This could be used in everything from modelling diseases to monitoring the level of pollutants in soil.
And while the Muybridge GIF was the first time a movie has been encoded in the DNA of living cells, other scientists have already treated genetic circuitry like organic ZIP files. In March, a pair of researchers at the New York Genome Center published a report in Science explaining how they stored compressed files in DNA molecules – namely a 1948 academic paper, a Pioneer plaque, an operating system, a virus, the 1895 film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat… and a $50 Amazon gift card.