DNA is essentially a software program with coding instructions to enable functionality. Scientists driven to push boundaries have manipulated DNA and have even used it as a storage area for photos (GIFs). As these lines have been crossed it is not hard to imagine that DNA might be manipulated in malicious ways eventually too. Computers run on 0 and 1 bit instructions, while DNA strands are made from four building blocks, represented by the letters A, C, G, and T. The idea of transforming these letters to bit instructions is a potential way to manipulate DNA to run computer commands.
Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle, who call it the first “DNA-based exploit of a computer system,” have converted a segment of malware into physical DNA strands using the letter to bit strategy. When a computer tried to analyze the “trojan horse” DNA, the strands of malware launched and took over the computer.
“The present-day threat is very small, and people don’t need to lose sleep immediately,” says Tadayoshi Kohno, a renowned computer security expert who led the team. “But we wanted to know what was possible and what the issues are down the line.”
The new DNA malware will be showcased later this month at the Usenix Security Symposium in Vancouver. While the saying “forewarned is forearmed” definitely applies here as the reality of such attacks will become more likely as sequencing has and will in the future become cheaper and more commonplace. But there is also something to say about giving those with bad intentions ideas and even methodologies to cause harm.