How can one create a computer virus in DNA, you ask? Well, it is not as complicated as it may seem. First, the ‘virus’ program is converted into 2-bit binary data (series of 0s and 1s) and with each combination containing an analogue to the nucleotide bases (adenine, thymine, etc.). 00 is converted to A, 01 to C, 10 to G, and 11 to T. Next, a DNA sequencing firm produces the DNA strand chemically. The strand is then stored in a sealed container and dehydrated. According to Ceze, “if protected from light and heat, they can last a long – and I mean a very long – time.”
The malicious DNA created by Ceze and colleagues was only 176 bases long, equal to 44 bytes. The code can only be introduced to a computer through the sequencer when it is being translated back into binary data for computer storage. The specific command they designed targeted a previously identified flaw in the internal programming of the DNA sequencing machine. When the code was processed by the program, the machine was infected, and the team could manipulate it. Though DNA data storage technology is currently confined to research labs, flaws such as this raise important and interesting new questions with regards to cyber security.
“The world is producing data at an incredible rate, and storage technologies need to keep up,” said Ceze. Perhaps that is why companies like Microsoft are turning to DNA as possible data storage for the future. The way data is stored at present is not only costly, but it is taking up more space than the world can handle. DNA is very small, very dense, and it packs three-dimensionally. This may not seem like a big deal because silicon transistors are flat and can stack on top of each other, right? Wrong. Stacking electronics has associated dangers, as they require a lot of energy to function (again, costly) and therefore release heat. Exchanging silicon transistors for DNA could increase storage capacity thousands-fold. Some sources claim that if the entire internet was coded in DNA, it would fit in a shoe box. This is especially important as the rate of data production is ever increasing, requiring more space to store it.
Of course, there is a downside. As reading and writing DNA is a complicated process, it cannot match the efficiency of storing data electronically. However, the technology is only in its infancy and as such improvements in the technique are to be expected.
The possibilities of data storage in DNA are endless. Perhaps in a century humans will be walking around with thousands – or even millions – of digital data in our cells. Perhaps the endpoint of Moore’s Law is a DNA strand? There would no longer be phones at all because we would be transmitting signals through our cells. If this is our future, we need to take stronger security measures to ensure that DNA code will not be hacked and our data will not be manipulated.
This article was written by Karolina Zieba and edited by James Hitchen.