Eat your heart out, JC Denton: Hackers figure out how to inject malware into DNA

In the world of PC gaming we usually think of hacking as a threat to our precious accounts or our ability to play a game. There are plenty of stories about someone hacking their way into our Blizzard IDs to steal a rare WoW mount, or someone DDOSing an MMO's servers, making it difficult to sign-in. 

Sometimes these issues extend beyond gaming, like when DDOS attacks that started from Minecraft server squabbles took down half the internet. But here's a terrifying first: we've never heard about hackers injecting evil software into DNA to commandeer a computer. They didn't even do that in the movie Hackers, in which two men literally yell "Hack the planet!!"

Here's the full crazy story, as told by Wired: "a group of researchers from the University of Washington has shown for the first time that it’s possible to encode malicious software into physical strands of DNA, so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer."

The idea itself isn't so crazy, really: a piece of software is reading a file and triggering some malicious code, which then takes over the computer. It's like getting a trojan from a scuzzy copy of a pirated game, except in this case, the trojan is your own ruined DNA code. Most of us spend more time playing games on our PC than we do analyzing DNA sequences, but as Wired points out, the implications for this sci-fi-style piece of hacking are potentially serious.

"As genetic sequencing is increasingly handled by centralized services—often run by university labs that own the expensive gene sequencing equipment—that DNA-borne malware trick becomes ever so slightly more realistic," Wired writes. 

We're reminded of the internet sleuth who recently found information about an NSA supercomputer sitting out in the open on an unsecured server. We probably don't have to worry about Blizzard falling victim to evil DNA, but who knows what major internet services could be susceptible in the future. Other scientists are already exploring the idea of using DNA to store data—and recently successfully implanted a GIF into DNA—so this kind of thing is only going to become more relevant to our everyday computing lives as time goes on.

The Wired story elaborates on how the researchers accomplished their hack, which included plenty of compromises that wouldn't exactly work in a real world environment. For now. Check out the full story for details on how it all worked, but the short version is: hacking is cool, and we can now safely use the phrase "biohacking" without referencing embarrassing self-help tips like "drink unprocessed spring water."

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).