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There are examples of mathematics in nature such as Fibonacci number, fractals, etc. Are there examples of encrypted information?

What I am looking for is a pattern that seems random on the surface, but once you put it through a "decryption" process, it is actually something else. Not patterns that seem random because they are complex.

One example that comes close is DNA. But I see DNA as a form of encoding, not encryption.

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You may want to define what you're looking for a bit better. Isn't something that appears random, but is actually a complex formation practically the same as encryption? I don't see the difference between your first and second sentences in your second paragraph. – MCM Feb 20 '13 at 1:58
I see encrypted information as needing to be decrypted before it can make any sense. Whereas given enough resources, complex patterns can be understood without modifying the data itself. For example trying to read an encrypted text vs trying to read Chinese (if you don't know Chinese). – Karn Ratana Feb 20 '13 at 2:24
@KarnRatana: encryption implies the concept of "secrecy". You encrypt data so that only a certain individual or group of individuals can access it using a certain key. See also… . It is difficult to imagine a biological situation where secrecy would be an issue. – nico Feb 20 '13 at 10:17
@nico Thank you. I am not looking for encoding but encryption. Which, as you mentioned, does imply secrecy. I'm not well versed in biology and couldn't think of any example, hence the question =) – Karn Ratana Feb 20 '13 at 13:03
@KarnRatana The question is very interesting but I think it is currently unclear. Would you consider machiavelan intelligence in primates (I groom an individual but I hiding form another individuals when doing so) and camouflage or mimicry as examples of encryption when only individuals of the same species are able to see/disantangle? Can you please try to accurately define encryption for its application to biology? – Remi.b 2 days ago

8 Answers 8

Predator prey situations are assumed to have a reason for encryption, as they have signaling. Thus could be the change in appearance of a coiling snake, not only preparing to strike, but sending fake codes to prey at the same time, or coiling differently for mating.

On the recieving side, the timing of the length of gaze and head movements of deer in the midst of observing a scene might be considered cryptoanalysis, as they absorb and process data and carefully select responses and countermeasures.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

Please add some references to support your answer. – WYSIWYG 2 days ago

I actually think I may have come up with a biological analogy to encryption.

If you define encryption as taking information, breaking it up into random pieces or just small packets of data, that are sent on their way and when they reach a source are put back together based on a key, so that unintended recipients cannot interpret the information, then I would say that how the senses process the information that we experience, process it, send it along its way and then it is recompiled to form our experience of reality, is something akin to encryption/decryption.

Take vision. Our eye receives and focuses photons of light into electrochemical signals that get relayed to the visual cortex. In the visual cortex, that data is reassembled into our experience of reality of the world around us.

If, experimentally, we were able to tap into that signal running along the optic nerve and tried to interpret it just from the data flow, then it is unlikely that we would be able to reproduce the image being collected the way we could read the electrical impulse being transmitted from a CMOS or CCD sensor chip. I say this because our visual system is predictive. There is actually more information generated by the visual cortex than is being received and transmitted from the eyes.

We develop these keys in early child development and lay down these neural networks so that we are able to build and interpret an image without all of the data. This is how we can navigate through the world, drive a car, fly a jet fighter and cope with the signal delay that is inherent in the system. This may be more an example of compression of signal, but a compressed signal without the correct decompression algorithm would be a rudimentary form of encryption.

We can also see, with synesthesia, that when there is crosstalk between the regions of the brain that are are different from the norm, messages will be perceived in possibly unintended ways. Letters and numbers have colors, sounds produce visual imagery, etc.

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Interspecies communication at the human level obviously includes cryptography, it could be surmised that most animals and plants probably do some version of communication and hence, some cryptography (as all have predators.) The aforementioned viral example seems very apt, also interesting might be communication within a larger group, biofilm exhibiting herd-like communication in the presence of complex predators or anti-biotics for example. If whales communicate in the ocean, perhaps bacteria and viruses communicate and encrypt non-chemically in biofilm and hosts.

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This is comment rather than answer. – Dexter Nov 16 at 6:30

Not sure we can name it encryption, but

a pattern that seems random in surface but once you put it through a decryption process, it is actually something else

reminds me about some forms of predatory camouflage. I'm talking from the perspective of the prey: the predator blends with the environment and what the prey perceives is just 'random' environment. When the prey 'decrypts' that there is actually something else, it is generally too late.

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One example is sperm-egg attraction. Many species release their egg and sperm to be joined in water. The egg must try to avoid being fertilized by the sperm of a different species. So an egg secretes a special peptide which attracts the sperm to its location. The amino acid sequence of that peptide is unique for each species and sperm can only recognize the peptide secreted by the egg of their own species. To any other sperm, the peptide is just another molecule present in the water.

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Isn't this just signalling? – Jack Aidley Feb 24 '13 at 22:20
Yes, but isn't encryption a form of signaling? If signaling is communicating biologically, it follows encryption will involve some signaling, but the message will be masked, so that not everyone will understand it. – Drosophila Feb 25 '13 at 13:36
I don't see there's anything masked here; it's just a matter of using different signals. – Jack Aidley Feb 25 '13 at 13:40

I would think that the Bacteria - Phage restriction enzyme and methylation enzyme race could be thought of as a form of encryption. If your DNA isn't "signed" with the appropriate methylation patterns then it gets chopped into pieces and destroyed. This is the signing/verifying side of encryption rather then the encrypt/decrypt side, however.

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This sounds similar to what @nbogard mentioned (in concept not biology). Which deals more with authentication than protecting a "message". – Karn Ratana Feb 20 '13 at 16:23
R-M systems are fascinating, but it seems to me that there is no message that is encrypted. – Jack Aidley Feb 24 '13 at 22:19
@JackAidley modern encryption is used for signing/verifying messages as much as encrypting/decrypting them. The RM system is a form of signing/verifying. – Nick Feb 25 '13 at 9:28
@Nick: I disagree, my view is closer to that in Wikipedia - "[E]ncryption is the process of encoding messages (or information) in such a way that eavesdroppers or hackers cannot read it, but that authorized parties can". – Jack Aidley Feb 25 '13 at 9:32
@JackAidley Well if you want to be pedantic they can be examples of Cryptography rather than Encryption, but its the closest example in Biology I can think of. – Nick Feb 25 '13 at 9:35

Perhaps protein folding is an example of decryption? From a single primary sequence (i.e. the string of amino acids), it is impossible to guess the function of a protein. The folded protein is the functional unit (of course it might be further modified).

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Encryption is not about the impossibility of deciphering, that would rather be hashing. Also note that knowing folding does not immediately give you the function, just the structure. – nico Feb 20 '13 at 10:53

One example is in the development of the immune system. V(D)J recombination, antibody production, and T-cell receptor production generates a specific "key" that, in most cases, can only be bypassed by that individual's molecular inventory.

In that sense, parasites, mutualists, and commensalists could be viewed as black, white, and grey hat hackers, respectively.

Another example is the organism-specific tRNA synthase inventory and the matching tRNAs.

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This sounds similar to what @Nick mentioned (in concept not biology). Which deals more with authentication than protecting a "message". – Karn Ratana Feb 21 '13 at 17:58

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