Friday, October 06, 2017 by Tracey Watson
It seems like with every modern scientific “breakthrough” we become more vulnerable as a species. The latest such leap for mankind was announced recently in the journal Nucleic Acids Research, and involves programming cells to fight diseases like cancer and the flu. The research team, led by Professor Alfonso Jaramillo of the University of Warwick, claims that this new technology can also be harnessed to reverse agricultural issues, while strengthening plants against pest issues and making them more resilient in general.
While this all sounds good on the surface, all genetic engineering carries an element of risk, and this particular type of meddling could make us vulnerable to being hacked with bio-malware that could take control of all the cellular functioning of our bodies.
Just like computers, cells can be programmed to respond to specific codes and instructions.
The research team focused on manipulating Ribonucleic acid (RNA) – a common molecule produced by plants, animals and humans – to create “sequences of commands” which can program cells to perform certain functions, just as a programmer would when creating computer software. (Related: Genetically modified children – Baby born with DNA from three different people.)
The researchers made their invention by first modelling all possible RNA sequence interactions on a computer, and then constructing the DNA encoding the optimal RNA designs, to be validated on bacteria cells in the laboratory.
After inducing the bacterial cells to produce the genetically engineered RNA sequences, the researchers observed that they had altered the gene expression of the cells according to the RNA program — demonstrating that cells can be programmed with pre-defined RNA commands, in the manner of a computer’s microprocessor.
Professor Jaramillo, and his team of course, hope that this scientific breakthrough will be used for good – detecting and correcting abnormal states within the cells, triggering developmental programs, and reversing infection. (Related: Stay on top of all the latest breakthroughs in the scientific community at Scientific.news.)
Unfortunately, however, there are people and organizations out there who could harness this technology for their own dark purposes.
In August of this year, Silicon.co.uk reported that cybersecurity researchers at the University of Washington had successfully implanted malware into a DNA strand, underscoring their concerns that bio-malware could become a very dangerous threat in the coming years.
That particular group of researchers warned that security systems utilized when working with DNA “can be inadequate, and vulnerabilities have been discovered in the open-source software used in labs around the world.”
As the Silicon article noted, all the DNA information that is processed and analyzed is stored in a computer, and wherever there is a computer there is a risk of hacking.
These security breaches leave DNA information vulnerable and open to being encoded with malware, which is what the research team demonstrated when they successfully encoded malware into the DNA strand.
“We analysed the computer security practices of commonly used, open-source programs in this pipeline and found that they did not follow computer security best practices,” the research team noted in their study. “Many were written in programming languages known to routinely contain security problems, and we found early indicators of security problems and vulnerable code.”
It doesn’t take a giant leap of the imagination to picture scientists meddling with the DNA of humans, plants and animals, storing that information in their insecure computer systems, and hackers then implanting malware into the DNA.
Absolute chaos would ensue.
Professor Jaramillo’s “breakthrough” could become a lethal weapon of control and destruction in the wrong hands.
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