Bioterrorists trick scientists into making viruses in their own labs

Bioterrorists can trick scientists into making dangerous toxins or viruses by infecting lab computers with malware that alters synthetic DNA they produce for experiments

  • A new cyberattack tricks scientists into making toxic chemicals or viruses
  • Hackers can infect computers with malware to change DNA sequences 
  • They can bypass protocols set to scan DNA for malicious sequences 
  • Hackers can also camouflage their threats on the scientist’s computers 

Cyber security researchers uncovered an online attack that tricks scientists into creating toxic chemicals or deadly viruses in their own labs.

A team from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found bioterrorists can infect an ‘unwitting’ biologist’s computer with malware and easily replace a short sub-string of the DNA in the code with a new sequence. 

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has protocols for screening DNA orders from synthetic gene providers that scan for potentially harmful DNA.

However, the team was able to bypass the guidelines through obfuscation and found 16 out of 50 obfuscated DNA samples were not detected when screened according to the ‘best-match’ HHS guidelines.

Researchers found bioterrorists can infect an ‘unwitting’ biologist’s computer with malware that replaces a short sub-string of the DNA in the code with a new sequence

Rami Puzis, head of the Ben-Gurion University (BGU) Complex Networks Analysis Lab, said: ‘To regulate both intentional and unintentional generation of dangerous substances, most synthetic gene providers screen DNA orders, which is currently the most effective line of defense against such attacks.’

The researchers also found that accessibility and automation of the synthetic gene engineering workflow, combined with insufficient cybersecurity controls, allow malware to interfere with biological processes within the victim’s lab, closing the loop with the possibility of an exploit written into a DNA molecule.

The team described the attack in their study published in Nature using a scenario of Alice, Bob and Eva.

Alice is a scientists working at an academic institution and orders synthetic DNA from Bob, in which Eve, the attacker, replaces part of the ordered sequences with with a malicious sequence.

The team described the attack in their study published in Nature using a scenario of Alice, Bob and Eva. Alice is a scientists working at an academic institution and orders synthetic DNA from Bob, in which Eve, the attacker, replaces part of the ordered sequences with with obfuscated select agents and sequences for its future deobfuscation

Eve also attacks Alice’s computer with malware that replaces part of Alice’s sequence and camouflages fragments of the pathogenic DNA in the hijacked order.

Alice unintentionally uses the malicious DNA along with other sequences, including Cas9. 

During the cell transformation, Cas9 proteins are combined with gRNA from the malicious sequence to form CRISPR complexes that create multiple double-strand breaks – resulting in a noxious agent.

‘This threat is real. We conducted a proof of concept: an obfuscated DNA encoding a toxic peptide was not detected by software implementing the screening guidelines,’ reads the published study.

‘The DNA injection attack demonstrates a significant new threat of malicious code altering biological processes.’ 

Alice unintentionally uses the malicious DNA along with other sequences, including Cas9. During the cell transformation, Cas9 proteins are combined with gRNA from the malicious sequence to form CRISPR complexes that create multiple double-strand breaks – resulting in a noxious agent

The researchers also found that accessibility and automation of the synthetic gene engineering workflow, combined with insufficient cybersecurity controls, allow malware to interfere with biological processes within the victim’s lab, closing the loop with the possibility of an exploit written into a DNA molecule.

‘This attack scenario underscores the need to harden the synthetic DNA supply chain with protections against cyber-biological threats,’ Puzis says.

‘To address these threats, we propose an improved screening algorithm that takes into account in vivo gene editing.

‘We hope this paper sets the stage for robust, adversary resilient DNA sequence screening and cybersecurity-hardened synthetic gene production services when biosecurity screening will be enforced by local regulations worldwide.’

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