Hacking the President’s DNA

The U.S. government is surreptitiously collecting the DNA of world leaders, and is reportedly protecting that of Barack Obama. Decoded, these genetic blueprints could provide compromising information. In the not-too-distant future, they may provide something more as well—the basis for the creation of personalized bioweapons that could take down a president and leave no trace.
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If you really want to understand what’s happening in the biosciences, then you need to understand the rate at which information technology is accelerating. In 1965, Gordon Moore famously realized that the number of integrated-circuit components on a computer chip had been doubling roughly every year since the invention of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s. Moore, who would go on to co-found Intel, predicted that the trend would continue “for at least 10 years.” He was right. The trend did continue for 10 years, and 10 more after that. All told, his observation has remained accurate for five decades, becoming so durable that it’s now known as “Moore’s Law” and used by the semi-conductor industry as a guide for future planning.

Moore’s Law originally stated that every 12 months (it is now 24 months), the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double—an example of a pattern known as “exponential growth.” While linear growth is a slow, sequential proposition (1 becomes 2 becomes 3 becomes 4, etc.), exponential growth is an explosive doubling (1 becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8, etc.) with a transformational effect. In the 1970s, the most powerful supercomputer in the world was a Cray. It required a small room to hold it and cost roughly $8 million. Today, the iPhone in your pocket is more than 100 times faster and more than 12,000 times cheaper than a Cray. This is exponential growth at work.

In the years since Moore’s observation, scientists have discovered that the pattern of exponential growth occurs in many other industries and technologies. The amount of Internet data traffic in a year, the number of bytes of computer data storage available per dollar, the number of digital-camera pixels per dollar, and the amount of data transferable over optical fiber are among the dozens of measures of technological progress that follow this pattern. In fact, so prevalent is exponential growth that researchers now suspect it is found in all information-based technology—that is, any technology used to input, store, process, retrieve, or transmit digital information.

Over the past few decades, scientists have also come to see that the four letters of the genetic alphabet—A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine)—can be transformed into the ones and zeroes of binary code, allowing for the easy, electronic manipulation of genetic information. With this development, biology has turned a corner, morphing into an information-based science and advancing exponentially. As a result, the fundamental tools of genetic engineering, tools designed for the manipulation of life—tools that could easily be co-opted for destructive purposes—are now radically falling in cost and rising in power. Today, anyone with a knack for science, a decent Internet connection, and enough cash to buy a used car has what it takes to try his hand at bio-hacking.

These developments greatly increase several dangers. The most nightmarish involve bad actors creating weapons of mass destruction, or careless scientists unleashing accidental plagues—very real concerns that urgently need more attention. Personalized bioweapons, the focus of this story, are a subtler and less catastrophic threat, and perhaps for that reason, society has barely begun to consider them. Yet once available, they will, we believe, be put into use much more readily than bioweapons of mass destruction. For starters, while most criminals might think twice about mass slaughter, murder is downright commonplace. In the future, politicians, celebrities, leaders of industry—just about anyone, really—could be vulnerable to attack-by-disease. Even if fatal, many such attacks could go undetected, mistaken for death by natural causes; many others would be difficult to pin on a suspect, especially given the passage of time between exposure and the appearance of symptoms.

Moreover—as we’ll explore in greater detail—these same scientific developments will pave the way, eventually, for an entirely new kind of personal warfare. Imagine inducing extreme paranoia in the CEO of a large corporation so as to gain a business advantage, for example; or—further out in the future—infecting shoppers with the urge to impulse-buy.

We have chosen to focus this investigation mostly on the president’s bio-security, because the president’s personal welfare is paramount to national security—and because a discussion of the challenges faced by those charged with his protection will illuminate just how difficult (and different) “security” will be, as biotechnology continues to advance.

direct assault against the president’s genome requires first being able to decode genomes. Until recently, this was no simple matter. In 1990, when the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health announced their intention to sequence the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome over the next 15 years, it was considered the most ambitious life-sciences project ever undertaken. Despite a budget of $3 billion, progress did not come quickly. Even after years of hard work, many experts doubted that the time and money budgeted would be enough to complete the job.

This started to change in 1998, when the entrepreneurial biologist J. Craig Venter and his company, Celera, got into the race. Taking advantage of the exponential growth in biotechnology, Venter relied on a new generation of gene sequencers and a novel, computer-intensive approach called shotgun sequencing to deliver a draft human genome (his own) in less than two years, for $300 million.

Venter’s achievement was stunning; it was also just the beginning. By 2007, just seven years later, a human genome could be sequenced for less than $1 million. In 2008, some labs would do it for $60,000, and in 2009, $5,000. This year, the $1,000 barrier looks likely to fall. At the current rate of decline, within five years, the cost will be less than $100. In the history of the world, perhaps no other technology has dropped in price and increased in performance so dramatically.

Still, it would take more than just a gene sequencer to build a personally targeted bioweapon. To begin with, prospective attackers would have to collect and grow live cells from the target (more on this later), so cell-culturing tools would be a necessity. Next, a molecular profile of the cells would need to be generated, involving gene sequencers, micro-array scanners, mass spectrometers, and more. Once a detailed genetic blueprint had been built, the attacker could begin to design, build, and test a pathogen, which starts with genetic databases and software and ends with virus and cell-culture work. Gathering the equipment required to do all of this isn’t trivial, and yet, as researchers have upgraded to new tools, as large companies have merged and consolidated operations, and as smaller shops have run out of money and failed, plenty of used lab equipment has been dumped onto the resale market. New, the requisite gear would cost well over $1 million. On eBay, it can be had for as little as $10,000. Strip out the analysis equipment—since those processes can now be outsourced—and a basic cell-culture rig can be cobbled together for less than $1,000. Chemicals and lab supplies have never been easier to buy; hundreds of Web resellers take credit cards and ship almost anywhere.

Biological knowledge, too, is becoming increasingly democratized. Web sites like JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments) provide thousands of how-to videos on the techniques of bioscience. MIT offers online courses. Many journals are going open-access, making the latest research, complete with detailed sections on materials and methods, freely available. If you wanted a more hands-on approach to learning, you could just immerse yourself in any of the dozens of do-it-yourself-biology organizations, such as Genspace and BioCurious, that have lately sprung up to make genetic engineering into something of a hobbyist’s pursuit. Bill Gates, in a recent interview, told a reporter that if he were a kid today, forget about hacking computers: he’d be hacking biology. And for those with neither the lab nor the learning, dozens of Contract Research and Manufacturing Services (known as CRAMS) are willing to do much of the serious science for a fee.

From the invention of genetic engineering in 1972 until very recently, the high cost of equipment, and the high cost of education to use that equipment effectively, kept most people with ill intentions away from these technologies. Those barriers to entry are now almost gone. “Unfortunately,” Secretary Clinton said in a December 7, 2011, speech to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference, “the ability of terrorists and other non-state actors to develop and use these weapons is growing. And therefore, this must be a renewed focus of our efforts … because there are warning signs, and they are too serious to ignore.”

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