Hacking the President’s DNA

President 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.

This is how the future arrived. It began innocuously, in the early 2000s, when businesses started to realize that highly skilled jobs formerly performed in-house, by a single employee, could more efficiently be crowd-sourced to a larger group of people via the Internet. Initially, we crowd-sourced the design of T‑shirts (Threadless.com) and the writing of encyclopedias (Wikipedia.com), but before long the trend started making inroads into the harder sciences. Pretty soon, the hunt for extraterrestrial life, the development of self-driving cars, and the folding of enzymes into novel proteins were being done this way. With the fundamental tools of genetic manipulation—tools that had cost millions of dollars not 10 years earlier—dropping precipitously in price, the crowd-sourced design of biological agents was just the next logical step.

In 2008, casual DNA-design competitions with small prizes arose; then in 2011, with the launch of GE’s $100 million breast-cancer challenge, the field moved on to serious contests. By early 2015, as personalized gene therapies for end-stage cancer became medicine’s cutting edge, virus-design Web sites began appearing, where people could upload information about their disease and virologists could post designs for a customized cure. Medically speaking, it all made perfect sense: Nature had done eons of excellent design work on viruses. With some retooling, they were ideal vehicles for gene delivery.

Soon enough, these sites were flooded with requests that went far beyond cancer. Diagnostic agents, vaccines, antimicrobials, even designer psychoactive drugs—all appeared on the menu. What people did with these bio-designs was anybody’s guess. No international body had yet been created to watch over them.

So, in November of 2016, when a first-time visitor with the handle Cap’n Capsid posted a challenge on the viral-design site 99Virions, no alarms sounded; his was just one of the 100 or so design requests submitted that day. Cap’n Capsid might have been some consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, and his challenge just another attempt to understand the radically shifting R&D landscape—really, he could have been anyone—but the problem was interesting nonetheless. Plus, Capsid was offering $500 for the winning design, not a bad sum for a few hours’ work.

Later, 99Virions’ log files would show that Cap’n Capsid’s IP address originated in Panama, although this was likely a fake. The design specification itself raised no red flags. Written in SBOL, an open-source language popular with the synthetic-biology crowd, it seemed like a standard vaccine request. So people just got to work, as did the automated computer programs that had been written to “auto-evolve” new designs. These algorithms were getting quite good, now winning nearly a third of the challenges.

Within 12 hours, 243 designs were submitted, most by these computerized expert systems. But this time the winner, GeneGenie27, was actually human—a 20-year-old Columbia Univer