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DNA has gone Digital

University scientists, industry stakeholders and government agents have begun gathering to discuss these threats. We’ve even hosted FBI agents from the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate here at Colorado State University and previously at Virginia Tech for crash courses on synthetic biology and the associated cyberbiosecurity risks. A year ago, we participated in a U.S. Department of Defense-funded project to assess the security of biotechnology infrastructures. The results are classified, but we disclose some of the lessons learned in our new Trends in Biotechnology paper. Biology is becoming increasingly digitized. Researchers like us use computers to analyze DNA, operate lab equipment and store genetic information. But new capabilities also mean new risks – and biologists remain largely unaware of the potential vulnerabilities that come with digitizing biotechnology. he emerging field of cyberbiosecurity explores the whole new category of risks that come with the increased use of computers in the life sciences.

In 2010, a nuclear plant in Iran experienced mysterious equipment failures. Months later, a security firm was called in to troubleshoot an apparently unrelated problem. They found a malicious computer virus. The virus, called Stuxnet, was telling the equipment to vibrate. The malfunction shut down a third of the plant’s equipment, stunting development of the Iranian nuclear program. Unlike most viruses, Stuxnet didn’t target only computers. It attacked equipment controlled by computers. The marriage of computer science and biology has opened the door for amazing discoveries. With the help of computers, we’re decoding the human genome, creating organisms with new capabilities, automating drug development and revolutionizing food safety. Stuxnet demonstrated that cybersecurity breaches can cause physical damages. What if those damages had biological consequences? Could bioterrorists target government laboratories studying infectious diseases? What about pharmaceutical companies producing lifesaving drugs? As life scientists become more reliant on digital workflows, the chances are likely rising.

The ease of accessing genetic information online has democratized science, enabling amateur scientists in community laboratories to tackle challenges like developing affordable insulin. But the line between physical DNA sequences and their digital representation is becoming increasingly blurry. Digital information, including malware, can now be stored and transmitted via DNA. The J. Craig Venter Institute even created an entire synthetic genomewatermarked with encoded links and hidden messages. Twenty years ago, genetic engineers could only create new DNA molecules by stitching together natural DNA molecules. Today scientists can use chemical processes to produce synthetic DNA. The sequence of these molecules is often generated using software. In the same way that electrical engineers use software to design computer chipsand computer engineers use software to write computer programs, genetic engineers use software to design genes. With the help of computers, editing and writing DNA sequences is almost as easy as manipulating text documents. And it can be done with malicious intent.

The ability to manipulate DNA was once the privilege of the select few and very limited in scope and application. Today, life scientists rely on a global supply chain and a network of computers that manipulate DNA in unprecedented ways. The time to start thinking about the security of the digital/DNA interface is now, not after a new Stuxnet-like cyberbiosecurity breach.

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