For now, that threat remains more of a plot point in a Michael Crichton novel than one that should concern computational biologists. But as genetic sequencing is increasingly handled by centralized services—often run by university labs that own the expensive gene sequencing equipment—that DNA-borne malware trick becomes ever so slightly more realistic. Especially given that the DNA samples come from outside sources, which may be difficult to properly vet.
If hackers did pull off the trick, the researchers say they could potentially gain access to valuable intellectual property, or possibly taint genetic analysis like criminal DNA testing. Companies could even potentially place malicious code in the DNA of genetically modified products, as a way to protect trade secrets, the researchers suggest. "There are a lot of interesting—or threatening may be a better word—applications of this coming in the future," says Peter Ney, a researcher on the project.
Regardless of any practical reason for the research, however, the notion of building a computer attack—known as an "exploit"—with nothing but the information stored in a strand of DNA represented an epic hacker challenge for the University of Washington team. The researchers started by writing a well-known exploit called a "buffer overflow," designed to fill the space in a computer's memory meant for a certain piece of data and then spill out into another part of the memory to plant its own malicious commands.
But encoding that attack in actual DNA proved harder than they first imagined. DNA sequencers work by mixing DNA with chemicals that bind differently to DNA's basic units of code—the chemical bases A, T, G, and C—and each emit a different color of light, captured in a photo of the DNA molecules. To speed up the processing, the images of millions of bases are split up into thousands of chunks and analyzed in parallel. So all the data that comprised their attack had to fit into just a few hundred of those bases, to increase the likelihood it would remain intact throughout the sequencer's parallel processing.