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.

In 2005, as part of its preparation for this threat, the FBI hired Edward You, a cancer researcher at Amgen and formerly a gene therapist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. You, now a supervisory special agent in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate within the FBI’s Biological Countermeasures Unit, knew that biotechnology had been expanding too quickly for the bureau to keep pace, so he decided the only way to stay ahead of the curve was to develop partnerships with those at the leading edge. “When I got involved,” You says, “it was pretty clear the FBI wasn’t about to start playing Big Brother to the life sciences. It’s not our mandate, and it’s not possible. All the expertise lies in the scientific community. Our job has to be outreach education. We need to create a culture of security in the synbio community, of responsible science, so the researchers themselves understand that they are the guardians of the future.”

Toward that end, the FBI started hosting free bio-security conferences, stationed WMD outreach coordinators in 56 field offices to network with the synbio community (among other responsibilities), and became an iGEM partner. In 2006, after reporters at The Guardian successfully mail-ordered a crippled fragment of the genome for the smallpox virus, suppliers of genetic materials decided to develop self-policing guidelines. According to You, the FBI sees the organic emergence of these guidelines as proof that its community-based policing approach is working. However, we are not so sure these new rules do much besides guarantee that a pathogen isn’t sent to a P.O. box.

In any case, much more is necessary. An October 2011 report by the WMD Center, a nonprofit organization led by former Senators Bob Graham (a Democrat) and Jim Talent (a Republican), said a terrorist-sponsored WMD strike somewhere in the world was probable by the end of 2013—and that the weapon would most likely be biological. The report specifically highlighted the dangers of synthetic biology:

As DNA synthesis technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will soon become feasible to synthesize nearly any virus whose DNA sequence has been decoded … as well as artificial microbes that do not exist in nature. This growing ability to engineer life at the molecular level carries with it the risk of facilitating the development of new and more deadly biological weapons.

Malevolent non-state actors are not the only danger to consider. Forty nations now host synbio research, China among them. The Beijing Genomics Institute, founded in 1999, is the largest genomic-research organization in the world, sequencing the equivalent of roughly 700,000 human genomes a year. (In a recent Science article, BGI claimed to have more sequencing capacity than all U.S. labs combined.) Last year, during a German E. coli outbreak, when concerns were raised that the disease was a new, particularly deadly strain, BGI sequenced the culprit in just three days. To put that in perspective, SARS—the deadly pneumonia variant that panicked the world in 2003—was sequenced in 31 days. And BGI appears poised to move beyond DNA sequencing and become one of the foremost DNA synthesizers as well.

BGI hires thousands of bright young researchers each year. The training is great, but the wages are reportedly low. This means that many of its talented synthetic biologists may well be searching for better pay and greener pastures each year, too. Some of those jobs will undoubtedly appear in countries not yet on the synbio radar. Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan will almost certainly be hiring.

In the run-up to Barack Obama’s inauguration, threats against the incoming president rose markedly. Each of those threats had to be thoroughly investigated. In his book on the Secret Service, Ronald Kessler writes that in January 2009, for example, when intelligence emerged that the Somalia-based Islamist group al‑Shabaab might try to disrupt Obama’s inauguration, the Secret Service’s mandate for that day became even harder. In total, Kessler reports, the Service coordinated some 40,000 agents and officers from 94 police, military, and security agencies. Bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed throughout the area, and counter-sniper teams were stationed along the parade route. This is a considerable response capability, but in the future, it won’t be enough. A complete defense against the weapons that synbio could make possible has yet to be invented.

The range of threats that the Secret Service has to guard against already extends far beyond firearms and explosive devices. Both chemical and radiological attacks have been launched against government officials in recent years. In 2004, the poisoning of the Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko involved TCCD, an extremely toxic dioxin compound. Yushchenko survived, but was severely scarred by chemically induced lesions. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian security service, was poisoned to death with the radioisotope polonium 210. And the use of bioweapons themselves is hardly unknown; the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States nearly reached members of the Senate.

The Kremlin, of course, has been suspected of poisoning its enemies for decades, and anthrax has been around for a while. But genetic technologies open the door for a new threat, in which a head of state’s own DNA could be used against him or her. This is particularly difficult to defend against. No amount of Secret Service vigilance can ever fully secure the president’s DNA, because an entire genetic blueprint can now be produced from the information within just a single cell. Each of us sheds millions and millions of cells every day. These can be collected from any number of sources—a used tissue, a drinking glass, a toothbrush. Every time President Obama shakes hands with a constituent, Cabinet member, or foreign leader, he’s leaving an exploitable genetic trail. Whenever he gives away a pen at a bill-signing ceremony, he gives away a few cells too. These cells are dead, but the DNA is intact, allowing for the revelation of potentially compromising details of the president’s biology.

To build a bioweapon, living cells would be the true target (although dead cells may suffice as soon as a decade from now). These are more difficult to recover. A strand of hair, for example, is dead, but if that hair contains a follicle, it also contains living cells. A sample gathered from fresh blood or saliva, or even a sneeze, caught in a discarded tissue, could suffice. Once recovered, these living cells can be cultured, providing a continuous supply of research material.

Even if Secret Service agents were able to sweep up all the shed cells from the president’s current environs, they couldn’t stop the recovery of DNA from the president’s past. DNA is a very stable molecule, and can last for millennia. Genetic material remains present on old clothes, high-school papers—any of the myriad objects handled and discarded long before the announcement of a presidential candidacy. How much attention was dedicated to protecting Barack Obama’s DNA when he was a senator? A community organizer in Chicago? A student at Harvard Law? A kindergartner? And even if presidential DNA were somehow fully locked down, a good approximation of the code could be made from cells of the president’s children, parents, or siblings, living or not.

Presidential DNA could be used in a variety of politically sensitive ways, perhaps to fabricate evidence of an affair, fuel speculation about birthplace and heritage, or identify genetic markers for diseases that could cast doubt on leadership ability and mental acuity. How much would it take to unseat a president? The first signs of Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s may have emerged during his second term. Some doctors today feel the disease was then either latent or too mild to affect his ability to govern. But if information about his condition had been genetically confirmed and made public, would the American people have demanded his resignation? Could Congress have been forced to impeach him?

For the Secret Service, these new vulnerabilities conjure attack scenarios worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Advances in stem-cell research make any living cell transformable into many other cell types, including neurons or heart cells or even in vitro–derived (IVD) “sperm.” Any live cells recovered from a dirty glass or a crumpled napkin could, in theory, be used to manufacture synthetic sperm cells. And so, out of the blue, a president could be confronted by a “former lover” coming forward with DNA evidence of a sexual encounter, like a semen stain on a dress. Sophisticated testing could distinguish an IVD fake sperm from the real thing—they would not be identical—but the results might never be convincing to the lay public. IVD sperm may also someday prove capable of fertilizing eggs, allowing for “love children” to be born using standard in vitro fertilization.

In the hope of mounting the best defense, one option is radical transparency: release the president’s DNA.

As mentioned, even modern cancer therapies could be harnessed for malicious ends. Personalized therapies designed to attack a specific patient’s cancer cells are already moving into clinical trials. Synthetic biology is poised to expand and accelerate this process by making individualized viral therapies inexpensive. Such “magic bullets” can target cancer cells with precision. But what if these bullets were trained to attack healthy cells instead? Trained against retinal cells, they would produce blindness. Against the hippocampus, a memory wipe may result. And the liver? Death would follow in months.

The delivery of this sort of biological agent would be very difficult to detect. Viruses are tasteless and odorless and easily aerosolized. They could be hidden in a perfume bottle; a quick dab on the attacker’s wrist in the general proximity of the target is all an assassination attempt would require. If the pathogen were designed to zero in specifically on the president’s DNA, then nobody else would even fall ill. No one would suspect an attack until long after the infection.

Pernicious agents could be crafted to do their damage months or even years after exposure, depending on the goals of the designer. Several viruses are already known to spark cancers. New ones could eventually be designed to infect the brain with, for instance, synthetic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or Alzheimer’s. Stranger possibilities exist as well. A disease engineered to amplify the production of cortisol and dopamine could induce extreme paranoia, turning, say, a peace-seeking dove into a warmongering hawk. Or a virus that boosts the production of oxytocin, the chemical likely responsible for feelings of trust, could play hell with a leader’s negotiating abilities. Some of these ideas aren’t new. As far back as 1994, the U.S. Air Force’s Wright Laboratory theorized about chemical-based pheromone bombs.

Of course, heads of state would not be the only ones vulnerable to synbio threats. Al‑Qaeda flew planes into buildings to cripple Wall Street, but imagine the damage an attack targeting the CEOs of a number of Fortune 500 companies could do to the world economy. Forget kidnapping rich foreign nationals for ransom; kidnapping their DNA might one day be enough. Celebrities will face a new kind of stalker. As home-brew biology matures, these technologies could end up being used to “settle” all sorts of disputes, even those of the domestic variety. Without question, we are near the dawn of a brave new world.

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