TECHNOLOGY

Researchers Launch Malware Attack Stored in Synthetic DNA

Researchers successfully encoded a computer virus into strands of synthetic DNA and launched a cyber attack after a gene sequencing machine converted the DNA back into data.

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BY Will Yakowicz - 11 Aug 2017

A digital representation of DNA.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

DNA can carry mutations and genetic diseases, but researchers proved for the first time that DNA could also carry malicious computer software capable of launching a cyber attack.

Researchers at the University of Washington showed that it's possible to convert malicious software into data and store it in physical strands of synthetic DNA, the Wall Street Journal reports. The researchers proved that the malware encoded inside DNA could take over a computer sequencing the genetic material.

This attack is not practical for common hackers yet--Wired reports that the experiments were only successful 37 percent of time. But, the researchers found three different vulnerabilities in gene sequencing software that a hacker could exploit. As DNA sequencing becomes more popular and technology to store computer data inside DNA becomes more practical, future cyber attacks could originate from malware stored in DNA.

"This is something [the genomics industry] and the U.S. government should be concerned about," Tadayoshi Kohno, a member of the research team and a professor at the University of Washington, tells WSJ. The researchers will present their findings at the USENIX Security conference in Vancouver, Canada next Thursday.

The technology to encode malware into DNA involves converting computer binary code 1's and 0's into A, C, G, and T, the letters of DNA base types, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine.

Jason Callahan, the chief information security officer at Illumina, a gene-sequencing equipment manufacturer, tells Wired the attack is not an imminent threat, but one of the "potential long-term risks."