How Hackers Could Trick Unwitting Scientists Into Producing Dangerous Genes

Illustration for article titled How Hackers Could Trick Unwitting Scientists Into Producing Dangerous Genes

Photo: Juan Mabromata (Getty Images)

In a new letter to the editor pulled from the prestigious scientific journal Nature, a team of Israeli researchers pose a frankly wild-sounding question: could a computer hack result in a scientist being swindled into creating a piece of genetic code that’s harmful—or potentially toxic—rather than helpful?

The answer seems to be yes, albeit with some pretty weighty caveats. The “end-to-end cyberbiological attack” described above requires some lackluster cybersecurity chops from both sides of the genetic research supply chain: both the academics who might order genetic materials online, and the labs that might supply those materials back. While this sort of attack hasn’t been seen in the wild yet, the research team behind the letter pointed out that it’s not outside the realm of possibility—especially as more and more genetic research moves into the digital realm.

At the heart of this hypothetical hack is the software that biologists use to “print” strands of DNA from scratch and then assemble them together, a process known as “DNA synthesis.” In recent years, we’ve seen this synthesizing software underpin tons of groundbreaking biomedical research. In the mad dash to create a treatment for Covid-19, for instance, a handful of major pharma companies turned to using man-made strands of DNA as one of the components of their experimental vaccines.

But software—even software that’s used to write strings of biological code—is still software, which means it can still be hacked. Futurists and scientists alike have been sounding that specific alarm for years. And back in 2017, a team of researchers from the University of Washington even demonstrated that it was possible to encode malware directly into one of these synthetic DNA strands, albeit with a lot of trial and error, and the malware only worked because they intentionally borked the software they intended to attack. (And, as Wired wrote though, “the attack was fully translated only about 37 percent of the time.”)

Both that case and the case described in this new letter are theoretical. But as the Israeli researchers put it, of these cases are theoretical. But as the Israeli team puts it, “the threat is real”—especially as synthetic DNA underlies more and more biomedical research.

Illustration for article titled How Hackers Could Trick Unwitting Scientists Into Producing Dangerous Genes

Graphic: Nature Biotechnology (Fair Use)

Here’s how the hack would (theoretically) go down: let’s say you have a bioengineer working out of a University, who happens to be working on a new vaccine that requires specific strings of synthetic DNA. These strings are each constructed of four different chemical building blocks—or “bases,” in biology parlance—arranged in a specific sequence.

As the researchers point out, not every academic institution has the greatest cybersecurity chops, which means it’s entirely possible for a bad actor to hijack this engineer’s computer with some sort of malware. Because the bulk of buying these synthetic DNA strands happens online, there’s a chance that the bad actor

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University of Utah researchers discover genes linked to suicide

SALT LAKE CITY – Researchers at University of Utah Health’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute have detected more than 20 genes that may play a role in suicide.

The research is the first of its kind, and a Utah mother who is still grieving doesn’t find the results surprising.

Michelle Nelson stands in the bright kitchen of her 101-year-old house in Salt Lake City.

“Amethyst, opalite and crystal,” she said, picking up the small stones from a dish on the counter.

She collects them to help her heal because picking up the pieces after loss is daunting.

“I take Roan everywhere I go,” she said.

Nelson collects heart rocks — stones that naturally form into a heart shape which she finds outside.

“It’s like a gift from nature that reminds me of him,” Nelson said.

Two years ago, her 16-year-old son, Roan McClain, died by suicide.

“It was the biggest shock of my life,” she said. “You think your kids are always going to be okay.”

Her family has a history of suicide.

In a new study, researchers at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute discovered 22 genes that could have a role in suicide deaths. It establishes that suicide is partially heritable independent of a shared environment.

“We looked at over 3,400 samples from individuals who had lost their lives to suicide in Utah,” said Dr. Anna Docherty with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The study, among the first comprehensive genome-wide analyses of suicide death, also found significant genetic cross-connections to psychiatric diseases and behaviors associated with suicide, researchers said.

“Understanding that there is a strong genetic component will destigmatize the subject of suicide,” Docherty said.

Michelle Nelson collects heart rocks to remind her of her son, Roan, who died by suicide. She says new research is giving her hope. (Photo: KSL TV)

The goal of the research is to inspire discussions among families and with their healthcare providers to know when to get support, Docherty said.

“If you have a family history of suicide, it really pays to learn about all of the myriad risk factors and ways that you can really promote health in your family.”

For Nelson, it inspires hope.

“Maybe, if we could look at our kids and say, ‘Hey, you really are at risk. What can we do to get ahead of this?'” she said.

Scientists hope identifying these genes could lead to better predicting who’s at risk and finding better ways to help them.

In the meantime, Nelson continues to find comfort in nature, and her collection of heart rocks.

“When you lose someone close to you, your whole life changes,” she said. “You have to notice the little things. You have to go back to those small things, like the rocks.”

Next, researchers plan to dig into the molecular genetics of suicides to understand the links, and to find drug therapies.

If you or someone you love needs help, call the Utah Crisis Line at 801-587-3000.

Suicide Prevention Resources

If you or someone you

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