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Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Pros And Cons of DNA Hacking

The Pros And Cons of DNA Hacking

Think of all the trouble that computer hackers cause. Now imagine what DNA hackers could do.

In the future, DNA hackers won’t sneak viruses into your laptop and crash websites. Instead, they’ll sneak viruses into your body and crash you, and maybe billions of other people, too. They’ll do this by designing DNA sequences that code for new, never-before-seen, living viruses that spread from person to person as easily as measles, and that kill (or sicken) as inevitability as rabies.

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Truly monstrous hackers will ensure your doctor cannot help you fight the virus, by engineering it so that off-the-self medicines and vaccines are ineffective. Medical science, caught flat-footed, will have only weeks to develop, test, produce, and distribute new vaccines and medicines before the exponential spread of the virus collapses social order world-wide. (Witness last year’s penetrating anxieties when just two people caught Ebola inside the U.S.)

With today’s science, engineering an Armageddon virus may still be impossible. But the progress of DNA technology in the 40 years since its invention has been spectacular and is accelerating. Remember the national-scale effort needed to sequence one human genome 15 years ago? Within a year it will cost you $500. By mail order. So, certainly, 40 years in the future, things that are now very hard or impossible will be easy.

And hackers are going to love DNA. Fundamentally, DNA is just a programming language for living tissues. DNA hackers will write programs for living cells to run, just like computer hackers write programs for computers to run. Today’s most leading-edge scientists have only started doing this, and there is no telling where it will go.

But when such techniques mature, zealots—or brilliant but disturbed high-school students—will realize they can make self-propagating bioweapons targeting only redheads. Or blood members of the British Royal family. Or Basques… Or dark-skinned people. Many testified that the apartheid South African government sought precisely such weapons in the 1980s, but that era’s rudimentary biotechnology stymied it. Not for much longer.

What to do? Scientists today are debating whether experiments on this path should be performed, but this responsible approach will not stop malevolent forces unconcerned with law or morals. Containing the technology will be impossible: unlike atomic weapons, our bodies contain all the elements needed to manufacture viruses.


There is only one solution: build a defense better than the offense—a defense that can detect, characterize and counter, on a national scale, any new viral or bacterial threat within 30 days of its appearance. Make it so hard to beat our defense that assembling the capital and talent needed to do so cannot occur surreptitiously.

This will be hard. Unbelievably hard. The aim is nothing less than the neutralization of every infectious disease, known and unknown. But it is an ambition matched by need, and it is science, not hubris.

Fortunately, cost is not a showstopper. Even if only partially successful, such a program—let us call it the New Apollo program, because Apollo was also the god of plagues—would generate so many wealth-producing discoveries in all branches of medicine that the overall cost of the program would be largely offset, not to mention the lives it would save directly.

Finally, consider the alternative, in which the continued existence of our planetary civilization depends on the sound judgment of teenagers. To avoid certain doom, the defense must get ahead and stay ahead, and we must start now.

Anti-Virus Software For Our DNA

Imagine computer-designed viruses that cure disease, new bacteria capable of synthesizing an unlimited fuel supply, new organisms that wipe out entire populations and bio-toxins that target world leaders. They sound like devices restricted to feature-film script writers, but it is possible to create all of these today, using the latest advances in synthetic biology.

Just as the personal computer revolution brought information technology from corporate data centers to the masses, the biology revolution is personalizing science.

In 2000, scientists at a private company called Celera announced that the company had raced ahead of the U.S. government-led international effort decoding the DNA of a human being. Using the latest sequencing technology, plus the data available from the Human Genome project, Celera scientists had created a working draft of the genome. These efforts cost over $1 billion, combined.

That speed and cost has since been significantly reduced, at double the rate of Moore’s Law, and the process can be done by a variety of companies. Today, it is possible to decode your DNA for a few thousand dollars. Expect the price to drop to the cost of a regular blood test within five years and, shortly thereafter, a cup of coffee.

But this process is about “reading” DNA. It is now possible to “write” it — a revolution in biology.

Craig Venter, who led the research at Celera, announced a decade later, in May 2010, that his team had, for the first time in history, built a synthetic life form — by “writing” DNA. Christened Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, also known as, “Synthia,” the slow-growing, harmless bacterium was made of a synthetic genome with 1,077,947 DNA base pairs.

The technology that Venter used to “boot up” this new organism was the equivalent of a laser printer that can “print” DNA.

There are a number of DNA “print” providers, such as DNA2.0 and GeneArt, which offer DNA synthesis and assembly operations as a service. Current pricing is by the number of base pairs — the chemical “bits” that make up a gene — to be assembled. Today’s rate is about 30 cents per base pair. Prices are falling exponentially. Within a few years, it could cost a hundredth of this amount. Eventually, like laser printers, DNA printers will be inexpensive home devices.

Andrew Hessel, co-chairman of bioinformatics and biotechnology at Singularity University, where I currently serve as vice president of academics and innovation, predicts that within 10 years, it will be possible to search for genetic designs on the Web, download them to your computer, and modify and adapt these to your needs. He predicts that cold and flu vaccine designs will be spread quickly over social media and that the process will be as easy as downloading an app on a smartphone. This technology will, ideally, make it possible for us to print our own treatments.

All of this opens up a Pandora’s Box of problems. Security futurist Marc Goodman says that synthetic biology will lead to new forms of bioterrorism — opportunities for the bad guys to create never-before-seen forms of bio-toxins. These bio-threats might be nearly impossible to detect because they can be customized to the genome of a certain person or groups of people. Goodman, who has long worked on cyber crime and terrorism with organizations such as Interpol and the United Nations, believes the potential bio-threat is greatly underestimated. “Bio-crime today is akin to computer crime in the early 1980s,” said Goodman at the Singularity University executive program this week. “Few initially recognized the problem, but one need only observe how the threat grew exponentially over time.”


In the future, as the price drops and the technology becomes more common place, criminals and terrorists will be able to exploit synthetic biology not only to drive large-scale outbreaks. They will also be able to create targeted attacks against a single individual based on his or her own unique biology.

We will need anti-virus software and defenses just as we have for computer software. But although we can reformat our hard disks to remove a computer virus, we can’t reformat our genomes ... yet.

An Edward Snowden of DNA Hackers

Keeping track of what we reveal about ourselves each day—through email and text messages, Amazon purchases and Facebook "likes"—is hard enough.

Imagine a future when Big Data has access not only to your shopping habits, but also to your DNA and other deeply personal data collected about our bodies and behavior—and about the inner workings of our proteins and cells. What will the government and others do with that data? And will we be unaware of how it's being used—or abused—until a future Edward Snowden emerges to tell us?

Wireless Camera Finder

Consider this scenario: A few years from now the National Security Agency hires a young analyst trained in cyber-genetics. She is assigned to comb through millions of DNA profiles in search of markers that might identify terrorists and spies and other persons of interest. It's simple enough, since almost every American and billions of other people have deposited their complete genomes—every A, C, T and G in their cells—into one of the huge new digital health networks, the new Googles and Verizons of medical data.

Sequencing a person's entire DNA profile will be as cheap as getting a car wash. High-end automobiles and hotels are likely to have installed photonic (light) sensors—devices that quickly read small segments of DNA in a customer's skin cells to confirm their identity—to unlock doors. Banks may offer DNA-secure accounts that can only be accessed by a person with the correct genetic code.

People in this future world will be accustomed to genetics guiding treatments and saving lives, even as they remain uneasy about who exactly has access—Employers? Insurers? The government? Their spouse or lover?

With her top-secret clearance, the NSA's new analyst discovers that the agency has accessed the genetic records of not only suspected terrorists, but also heads of state and leaders in industry, academia, the arts and the news media. Troubled by what she has learned, the analyst announces that she's taking a vacation, and flies to a neutral country carrying top-secret cyber-genetic documents stored on an encrypted nanochip. Like Edward Snowden, she gives her data to a reporter, with the hope of rectifying the injustices she has witnessed.

For better or worse, we're not there yet. In 2014, neither the government nor the public sector are anywhere near having a World Wide Web for genetic and other personal molecular data, or a global wireless network that can access anyone's genetic data from anywhere. If this were the Internet, the technology would be in about 1985—at the very beginning.

Physicians, however, are already using genomics to predict and diagnose diseases such as breast cancer and macular degeneration. Thousands of parents use prenatal genetic tests to check if their embryo or fetus carries genes for devastating diseases such as Tay-Sachs or Fragile X syndrome. Researchers have discovered genetic markers that can identify mutations in cancerous tumors that allow doctors to target specific chemotherapy drugs to match a patient's mutations in their own DNA—leading, in some cases, to astonishingly high rates of remission.

In the past two decades, the drug industry and government agencies like the National Institutes of Health have plowed hundreds of billions of dollars into turning genetics from a research project into something real. AT&T, Verizon, IBM and other IT giants are developing digital health networks and products, while thousands of start-ups are in a mini-frenzy to create new digital health networks and apps.

Some companies, including Google-backed 23andme, have begun to provide customers with access to their own genetic data. (23andme actually stopped providing customers with genetic health data after being warned by the FDA that they need approval for some of these tests—the company says that they are working to fix this). Labs and companies are also in the very early stages of developing devices that read short DNA sequences using light waves, or a simple pinprick of blood.

In January, San Diego-based Illumina, a gene-sequencing company, announced that it can now sequence an entire genome for only $1,000. This may sound pricey, but just a decade ago a single human genome cost hundreds of millions of dollars to sequence. The price is likely to get even less expensive in future years.


This year, the number of people having their genomes sequenced could top 50,000, and that number should increase exponentially over the next few years as governments and health-care systems announce projects to sequence hundreds of thousands of people. Last year the U.K. announced plans to sequence 100,000 citizens by 2017. In the U.S., Kaiser Permanente has teamed up with the University of California at San Francisco to sequence 100,000 patients.

Eventually the mountains of data generated by our DNA and digital health records will be linked to Facebook and Twitter pages (or the future equivalent), and to those pink suede shoes you just bought and shared on the latest incarnation of Instagram. We may not like it, but the reality is that we give up this type of information to these companies every day. And if people want to keep getting the services they provide, they're going to keep trading data for it.

The result in a few years will be staggeringly complex statistical models designed to predict your behavior and to identify personality types, including those prone to violence or terrorism. Congress has passed a law barring health insurers and employers from using DNA to discriminate. Beyond this, however, we have few protections.

Genetic predictions will not be perfect or deterministic. It turns out that DNA is only part of the equation that makes you who you are or will be. Using genetic profiling for identifying terrorists or other personality types will also be imprecise and fraught with errors. Yet the more data amassed about individuals over time, the more accurate the modeling that creates the predictions.

For instance, scientists in a 2008 study associated a variant of the MAOA gene—the so-called "warrior gene"—to a predilection for violent behavior in some people. The statistical strength of this correlation is weak, and even if you have that genetic marker, you may in fact be a full-on pacifist. But let's say that one afternoon you as a carrier of this gene variant "liked" an essay by a former Palestinian commando-turned-diplomat. An hour later you got curious about Al-Qaeda and did a quick Google search. What if some search algorithm at the NSA then connected your social media data to your DNA? The next thing you know, the Transportation Security Administration is stopping you from boarding your flight home for the holidays.

This is just one hypothetical example. As we rush into an era of bigger and better data being crunched by legions of government and public sector employees, we may have to get used to our health information being hacked and interpreted incorrectly or in ways that might work against us. Of course, it would be better to have an open debate and transparent policies about this type of data now.

Failing that, we may wake up one morning to read that the NSA once again has been spying on us—only this time, it won't be about who we called or texted, but the secrets buried deep inside our cells that tell us a great deal about who we are and who we might be in the future.

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty Henry, Owner


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