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I have watched a talk by Mikko Hypponen (CEO of the security company F-Secure) called Silicon Plague. There, roughly at minute 51 of the talk, he mentions a computer code that is supposed to be able to infect DNA.

I was googling and found the corresponding article posted ~2.5 years, and some c++ codes. Let me cite:

 The computer code, written in C++, hosts the DNA sequence of M.mycoides
 JCVI-syn1.0. At runtime it acts as follows:

 1) Preparing the DNA sequence of M.mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 in the memory,
    (with slightly modified watermarks).
 2) Encoding own file-content in base32. The base32 code is then encoded in
    JCVI's DNA-encoded alphabet.
 3) This representation of its digital form is then copied to a
    watermark of the bacteria's genome in memory. With this, a fully
    functional bacterial DNA sequence including the digital code is
    generated.
 4) Next, it searches for FASTA-files on the computer, which are text-based
    representations of DNA sequences, commonly used by many DNA sequence
    libraries.
 5) For each FASTA-file, it replaces the original DNA with the bacterial
    DNA containing the digital form of the computer code.

 The code has a classical self-replication mechanism as well, to eventually
 end up on a computer in a microbiology-laboratory with the ability of
 creating DNA out of digital genomes (such as laboratories by the JCVI).

As far as I understand, the program tries to go into biology-lab computers with genome files, and modify the content with some content of itself. This sounds scary. Unfortunately, I'm not at the level yet where I would understand whether that could work (undergraduate student), so my question is: Does that idea work? Could there really be a computer virus that infects DNA?

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  • $\begingroup$ The c++ is here. $\endgroup$ – ACGT Jul 31 '16 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ I was going to call BS but this looks pretty legitimate. It could of course work in theory, but I don't see any practical application $\endgroup$ – Malhar Khushu Jul 31 '16 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @MalharKhushu-Well, what is the practical application of any other computer virus ? :) Unless we call stealing money and destroying data, a 'practical application' :) :) $\endgroup$ – Rigel Aug 1 '16 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ Hi ACGT. Really nice post. However, the question is a bit ambiguous. Are you asking 1: if this virus could reflect/translate/exist in real-world DNA? or 2: if the virus could INFECT an existing organism (cell)? The answer for the first question is undoubted YES, and to the second question is undoubted NO. There is no evidence that the code is wrong. So, as long as it is in the right machine (craing inst) it WILL work. Your question will be treated more seriously 10 years from now on as we WILL see these kind of viruses more often. $\endgroup$ – Rigel Aug 1 '16 at 16:11
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As I understand from your post, the computer virus you are talking about is modifying database (FASTA files) in genetics. That would have a pretty bad impact on research in genetics and medicine.

If one uses such a database to synthesize/edit sequences and then introduce this DNA into a living organism, then yes the computer virus would have affected a living organism. If the sequence the computer virus has introduced is able to be transcribed into mRNA and go on infecting other cells, and eventually spread, then I guess one could say that the computer virus would have become an actual virus.

However, two things are to be considered. First, I very much doubt such a thing could go unnoticed. Second, anyone could have fun and create novel sequences. The only thing the virus does is corrupting files in a computer. The eventual existence of a man-made virus has no specific relationship with the computer virus and doing too much analogy here would stand little meaning.

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This is very silly.

All the computer virus is doing is corrupting a text file in a computer database.

If someone uses the information in the corrupt file to synthesize actual DNA to modify a living organism, the agent is the human. The computer code has no interaction whatever with the DNA.

This is just the same as if the person accidentally or deliberately engineered some pathogenic feature into an organism — a more realistic and worrying phenomenon.

PS

Fortunately this particular C++ code is for a Windows executable, and NCBI is all Unix.

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    $\begingroup$ "Fortunately this particular C++ code is for a Windows executable" - So what? The virus could 'infect' a fasta file before you submit it to NCBI DB. $\endgroup$ – Rigel Aug 1 '16 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ @SolarWInd This PS was meant to be taken in the same spirit as the question.( I leave you to work that out.) However, since you ask, the scenario envisaged NCBI GenBank's database in which the sequence ALREADY resides being infected with a computer virus to corrupt it, not the user uploading the sequence. Of course, one can upload any sort of nonsense — one doesn't need a computer virus to do that — but that wasn't the scenario. $\endgroup$ – David Aug 1 '16 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ The computer file does NOT contain DNA. It is a computer file. And the virus is NOT targeted at the Craig Institute (not that that is relevant). It contains a TEXTUAL REPRESENTATION of DNA bases (not even the sugar and phosphate) which can be interpreted (by someone reading it) in a different code than the genetic code — like a cipher. He could have devised a code in which he had written a message "Don't forget to feed the cat", but this one can be typed out by a human being and compiled into a Windows executable. (Glad I don't run Windows. Prefer the cat.) $\endgroup$ – David Aug 1 '16 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ "All the computer virus is doing is corrupting a text file" - You just contradicted yourself. If the virus can infect a computer file containing 'DNA' strings (you said it can) and the file is used to synthesize REAL DNA, then yes, the virus worked! And the virus is targeted to Craig Institute, which happens to synthesize DNA (from computer files). Voilà! $\endgroup$ – Rigel Aug 1 '16 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ You’re entitled to your view and your down vote. The poster accepted an extended version of my argument in another answer two years ago, so the world moves on, unimpeded by computer viruses infecting its DNA. I suggest we do likewise. $\endgroup$ – David Mar 30 at 9:06
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I already have a fasta for a XDR tuberculosis strain on my computer. It's not hurting anyone, nor will it. If someone wrote a script that changed the fasta file I have of drug sensitive strains to put in resistance-granting mutations, that's going to screw up some analyses, but it's not going to kill anyone.

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It's theoretically possible that a particular DNA sequence could trigger a bug in one of the programs that deals with sequenced DNA and inject executable x86 code into the computer's memory that then causes it to insert that DNA into something that's then going to be synthesised... producing an organism that contains the computer virus in its DNA and might will then, eventually, be sequenced again...

But if that were actually possible, it probably would've happened already! At the very least, some DNA sequences would cause a crash, and then the bug would be fixed. But if it weren't... it's theoretically possible for a gene to evolve that uses that. Wouldn't that be cool? (But yeah, that's never going to happen.)

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