DNA: The next big hacking frontier

Vivek Wadhwa
Contributor, Innovations December 8, 2011

Imagine computer-designed viruses that cure disease, new bacteria capable of synthesizing an unlimited fuel supply, new organisms that wipe out entire populations and bio-toxins that target world leaders. They sound like devices restricted to feature-film script writers, but it is possible to create all of these today, using the latest advances in synthetic biology.

Just as the personal computer revolution brought information technology from corporate data centers to the masses, the biology revolution is personalizing science.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

In 2000, scientists at a private company called Celera announced that the company had raced ahead of the U.S. government-led international effort decoding the DNA of a human being. Using the latest sequencing technology, plus the data available from the Human Genome project, Celera scientists had created a working draft of the genome. These efforts cost over $1 billion, combined.

That speed and cost has since been significantly reduced, at double the rate of Moore’s Law, and the process can be done by a variety of companies. Today, it is possible to decode your DNA for a few thousand dollars. Expect the price to drop to the cost of a regular blood test within five years and, shortly thereafter, a cup of coffee.

But this process is about “reading” DNA. It is now possible to “write” it — a revolution in biology.

Craig Venter, who led the research at Celera, announced a decade later, in May 2010, that his team had, for the first time in history, built a synthetic life form — by “writing” DNA. Christened Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, also known as, “Synthia,” the slow-growing, harmless bacterium was made of a synthetic genome with 1,077,947 DNA base pairs.

The technology that Venter used to “boot up” this new organism was the equivalent of a laser printer that can “print” DNA.

There are a number of DNA “print” providers, such as DNA2.0 and GeneArt, which offer DNA synthesis and assembly operations as a service. Current pricing is by the number of base pairs — the chemical “bits” that make up a gene — to be assembled. Today’s rate is about 30 cents per base pair. Prices are falling exponentially. Within a few years, it could cost a hundredth of this amount. Eventually, like laser printers, DNA printers will be inexpensive home devices.

Andrew Hessel, co-chairman of bioinformatics and biotechnology at Singularity University, where I currently serve as vice president of academics and innovation, predicts that within 10 years, it will be possible to search for genetic designs on the Web, download them to your computer, and modify and adapt these to your needs. He predicts that cold and flu vaccine designs will be spread quickly over social media and that the process will be as easy as downloading an app on a smartphone. This technology will, ideally, make it possible for us to print our own treatments.

All of this opens up a Pandora’s Box of problems. Security futurist Marc Goodman says that synthetic biology will lead to new forms of bioterrorism — opportunities for the bad guys to create never-before-seen forms of bio-toxins. These bio-threats might be nearly impossible to detect because they can be customized to the genome of a certain person or groups of people. Goodman, who has long worked on cyber crime and terrorism with organizations such as Interpol and the United Nations, believes the potential bio-threat is greatly underestimated. “Bio-crime today is akin to computer crime in the early 1980s,” said Goodman at the Singularity University executive program this week. “Few initially recognized the problem, but one need only observe how the threat grew exponentially over time.”

In the future, as the price drops and the technology becomes more common place, criminals and terrorists will be able to exploit synthetic biology not only to drive large-scale outbreaks. They will also be able to create targeted attacks against a single individual based on his or her own unique biology.

We will need anti-virus software and defenses just as we have for computer software. But although we can reformat our hard disks to remove a computer virus, we can’t reformat our genomes ... yet.

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