DNA is colloquially described as a “blueprint” for life, but a better way of thinking about it may be as a hard drive. After all, it is a massive data store – one that preserves and replicates itself through countless generations. Just one drop of DNA can technically store all of human history on it.
It should come as no surprise then that plenty of researchers see DNA as the future of data storage. So far though, all we’ve managed to encode onto DNA – and then download back into a computer – are a handful of images, some text, and even an extremely short movie.
Now, as reported by Wired, it appears malware can be stored on a strand of DNA too, which sounds a lot scarier than it actually is.
Malware, as you probably know, is designed to infect computers in order to cause harm to the user and to benefit the person that created the program in the first place. Think computer viruses acting as a benign program.
The malware in this case is of that ilk. It’s not referring to some sort of genetic malware, in which a biological “code” will wreak havoc on a person or animal. It’s a computer virus, embedded harmlessly in DNA.
It took considerable effort. They had to synthesize their own strand of DNA, then attach specific chemicals to the DNA nucleotides – A, T, G, and C – which are themselves the individual “code” units of the DNA strand.
Only certain ratios of nucleotides were stable too, so most of their synthesized strands were unstable. Eventually though, they succeeded; lines of code were converted into unusual combinations of nucleotides.
Presenting their research today at the USENIX Security conference in Vancouver, the biohackers from the University of Washington explained the purpose of such an exercise. Namely, when a gene sequencing device reads this strand of DNA, the data stored on the processing system will assemble itself into a malicious virus.
Gene sequencing is becoming exponentially cheaper, faster, and is on its way to becoming an omnipresent technology. Apart from medical services using it to pick up on genetic defects, it will likely be used far more to determine someone’s identity. Instead of using PINs or retina scans to access bank accounts or get into secure locations, your genetic material might be quickly scanned instead.
If a hacker were to encode their body or even a tissue sample with malware, then they could literally break through this form of security without having to lift a finger. That’s a bit of a way off from becoming a reality, but this type of research makes it all the more likely.