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Hacking the President’s DNA
October 26, 2012 8:55 PM   Subscribe

Hacking the President’s 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."
posted by homunculus (45 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd be upset if this was a foreign government, but since it's not, USA USA USA!
posted by wcfields at 8:58 PM on October 26, 2012


Wasn't that the plot of Metal Gear Solid?
posted by Phssthpok at 9:06 PM on October 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


These particles would spread around campus in an exponentially growing chain reaction that was—other than the mild fever and some sneezing—absolutely harmless. This would change when the virus crossed paths with cells containing a very specific DNA sequence, a sequence that would act as a molecular key to unlock secondary functions that were not so benign. This secondary sequence would trigger a fast-acting neuro-destructive disease that produced memory loss and, eventually, death. The only person in the world with this DNA sequence was the president of the United States, who was scheduled to speak at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government later that week.

This is a neat SciFi scenario, but afaik viruses don't grep the genomes of their hosts. Maybe a biologist could weigh in here?
posted by clarknova at 9:06 PM on October 26, 2012


Wasn't that the plot of Metal Gear Solid?

Fuck! You beat me by 30 seconds. My comment was going to be "Word has it they've already gotten to the DARPA Chief this way, though it was allegedly only a decoy"
posted by jake at 9:08 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:10 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


And to think Bill Clinton was just giving it away.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:35 PM on October 26, 2012 [82 favorites]


Why are they so intent on protecting Obama's DNA? What's he hiding?

MUSLIM DNA, OBVIOUSLY!
posted by saulgoodman at 9:45 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


In all seriousness, trying to secure the DNA of someone who travels around the country shaking hands with hundreds of people per day seems impossible.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:04 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's like you didn't even see Gattaca.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:13 PM on October 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


And to think Bill Clinton was just giving it away.

Spit take!!
posted by BlueHorse at 10:15 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't know about Metal Gear Solid but I read this once in a scifi novel. Can't find it with a quick search, but it was a future one world government, not so dystopia but giving gifts was illegal. One guy lived on charity anyway so they designed a version of the extinct HIV virus to take him down and only him.
posted by saber_taylor at 10:18 PM on October 26, 2012


"During the 1990s, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, infamous for its deadly 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, maintained an active and extremely well-funded bioweapons program, which included anthrax in its arsenal."

And that was tame compared to some of their other schemes:

From Tesla to Asahara: One Japanese Death Cult's Insane Attempt to Split the World in Two
posted by homunculus at 10:20 PM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Vital bodily fluids!
posted by blue_beetle at 10:20 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The genetic targeting of individuals is a little farther out.

Hahahahahahaha understatement of the year
posted by en forme de poire at 10:22 PM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I knew I read this somewhere. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:37 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


McDonalds tried to take out Clinton with a BioWeapon. It just turned out that Big Macs were too slow.
posted by srboisvert at 10:42 PM on October 26, 2012


Why are they so intent on protecting Obama's DNA? What's he hiding?

MUSLIM DNA, OBVIOUSLY!

I think you mean socialist DNA.
posted by trip and a half at 10:52 PM on October 26, 2012


The plot of Frankenweenie was more plausible.
posted by euphorb at 11:07 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Spit take!!

That's not spit. Not all of it, at least.
posted by aaronetc at 11:45 PM on October 26, 2012


I think you mean socialist DNA.

They're not the same?
posted by clarknova at 12:01 AM on October 27, 2012


We demand that Obama submit his long-form genome...
posted by double block and bleed at 12:04 AM on October 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Relevant: this is why the Daily Show dude commented (sidebar) that his people protect his drinks.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:28 AM on October 27, 2012


Also, yes, every Metal Gear Solid ever. DECADE OLD SPOILERS SHEESH.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:29 AM on October 27, 2012


viruses don't grep the genomes of their hosts

Transcription factors are proteins that effectively "grep" the local genome, by binding to specific, short sequences of DNA (6-15 bases, generally). Once bound to the genome, they can help effect a change in the cell's activities. Some other genes might get turned on, some other genes might get turned off. As a result, the cell starts doing something else.

Viruses use transcription factors in order to propagate, by reprogramming the genome to make more virus particles. One such example is Epstein-Barr virus. Its genome contains code to tell the infected cell to make a transcription factor called BZLF1. In quantity, this viral transcription factor binds to the DNA in B-cells and tells those infected cells to "wake up" and start making more Epstein-Barr virus, instead of allowing the cell to function as part of your immune system.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:38 AM on October 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Andrew Hessel and Marc Goodman are "faculty members" at Singularity University. That is everything you need to know about this article.
posted by dephlogisticated at 12:56 AM on October 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The U.S. government is surreptitiously collecting the DNA of world leaders

Oh no! Our very own government, infiltrated at the highest levels by Cobra!
posted by XMLicious at 1:33 AM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think, unless someone had a really unusual mutation, this wouldn't work very well at all. Humans aren't really differentiated so much by completely novel sequences , but rather different numbers of copies of various genes, as well as different combinations of genes. Someone might have genes A1-B1-C1-D1-E1-F6, And someone else might have A2-B1-C4-D3-E7-F1. And those combinations might be unique, but There isn't one person with A1, there isn't just one person with C6, etc.

So in order to target a specific person, you would need to bind to several sites without error. And virus genes can mutate quickly. So this strikes me as very improbable.
posted by delmoi at 2:24 AM on October 27, 2012


I'm assuming it would take a few years of lab work to target an individual. And then, once the high-level functionary is dead, the US has a whole suite of bacterial weaponry designed to encourage ground-level regime change and infrastructure redevelopment.
posted by The River Ivel at 2:51 AM on October 27, 2012


I first read the word "bioweapons" as "bloweapons" - - which I thought was a cool coined word for some sort of miniature spy blow gun. Now I'm deflated.
posted by fairmettle at 3:11 AM on October 27, 2012


"This is a neat SciFi scenario, but afaik viruses don't grep the genomes of their hosts. Maybe a biologist could weigh in here?"

Pretty much all viruses need to interact with their host's genome on some level, though larger ones tend to do it more than smaller ones. Essentially what viruses do is they get their own genetic information - encoded in their own nucleotides - into the cell, where they then force the host to read the information and make proteins and RNAs that do stuff from it. Viruses are able to do this because they co-evolve with their hosts and even use patterns in their genomes that cause their genes to be expressed in ways that are orders of magnitudes more strong than the hosts normal patterns. Pretty much the first order of business is trying to shut down any defense mechanisms the cell might have (MHC systems in mammals, or CRISPR and R/M systems in bacteria) and more generally shutting down the host cell's metabolism. This precess is kind of analogous to shutting down a car making factory (an endothelial cell making endothelial things, a CD4 T cell regulating immune things, or a bacterial cell making bacterial cells) and turning it into a motorcycle making factory (that cell now making viruses). Larger viruses will do more to alter their host cells, optimizing nucleotide metabolism for more efficient genome replication, optimizing energy metabolism to burn through everything really fast, adding sigma factors onto RNA polymerases to keep host genes from being expressed while optimizing expression of their own genes, and generally breaking everything for their short term gain. They then assemble viral particles in this more optimal environment, replicate their genomes, package those genomes into those viral particles, and burst the cell - releasing new viruses.

This is all incredibly tightly regulated as the evolutionary pressures on viruses is insane, their genomes approach perfection in ways that are difficult to even think about, for example in a virus I currently study there are two coding sequences that overlap each other and are read in different reading frames - just to save space. This is like writing the last act of Romeo and Juliet so perfectly that it is also the first act of King Lear when you shift all the spaces over by one letter. On top of this, viruses that infect multicellular eukaryotes (like the President) need to regulate their host's global metabolism, immune system, and behavior for survival and transmission - all while limited to fucking with the specific cell lines they infect. This is all to say that while we can certainly modify viruses to break them in ways that tell us more about them, we certainly can't even approach an ability to modify them in a way that makes them more efficient. We've tried as part of efforts to understand what make viruses turn more virulent and we failed miserably, the researchers needed to get evolution to do the designing for them. Additionally, anything we might try to do to make a virus do something specific to a specific person, even if we had the faintest idea of how we might even try to do that, would be heavily selected against if it didn't provide significant advantage more generally.

More generally, this article is filled with many fundamental misunderstandings of both the possibilities and limitations of molecular genetics and 'synthetic biology;' and the authors are bullshit artists who lack either the education or the disposition to accurately represent it. They're selling Kurzweilian bullshit repackaged for the unsuspecting, the uneducated and the gullible.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:47 AM on October 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


Guarding the POTUS's DNA does actually make a lot of sense for much more sensible reasons. DNA evidence is totally fabricatable these days if you have the equipment and someone could theoretically attach the POTUS to something embarrassing with either real or fabricated DNA evidence and use it as blackmail. Also, various diseases and disease progressions can be predicted using DNA, some of which may be embarrassing or otherwise bad for foreign or domestic powers to know about.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:04 AM on October 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


These particles would spread around campus in an exponentially growing chain reaction that was—other than the mild fever and some sneezing—absolutely harmless. This would change when the virus crossed paths with cells containing a very specific DNA sequence, a sequence that would act as a molecular key to unlock secondary functions that were not so benign. This secondary sequence would trigger a fast-acting neuro-destructive disease that produced memory loss and, eventually, death. The only person in the world with this DNA sequence was the president of the United States, who was scheduled to speak at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government later that week.

This is a neat SciFi scenario, but afaik viruses don't grep the genomes of their hosts. Maybe a biologist could weigh in here?


Right now, we are on the verge of some really interesting science that identifies people who are really susceptible to certain diseases. For example, a polymorphism that is found in people who get herpes encephalitis was identified in recent years - these people get an often-lethal brain infection instead of the cold sores most people get from mouth herpes. However, to use this against the president, he would have to have both the polymorphism (which makes an immune pathway not function correctly) and, have never been exposed to HSV-1/mouth herpes (most people have been exposed).

I guess Blazecock Pileon's idea makes sense - a viral protein binds a polymorphism only found in the president that turns off or on another set of genes that makes the president's immune system more susceptible to the virus. However, viruses mutate like crazy and spit out genes that aren't helping them survive, so it's likely that what ever president killing genes were inserted would fall right out.
posted by fermezporte at 5:10 AM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure this is how they built Serpentor.
posted by ColdChef at 5:20 AM on October 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


"I guess Blazecock Pileon's idea makes sense - a viral protein binds a polymorphism only found in the president that turns off or on another set of genes that makes the president's immune system more susceptible to the virus. However, viruses mutate like crazy and spit out genes that aren't helping them survive, so it's likely that what ever president killing genes were inserted would fall right out."

Well, the viruses that infect immune cells tend to be blood borne. Regardless though the systems that encode for the adaptive human immune system are chock full of unique polymorphisms, and maybe one could find a polymorphism in just the right spot to push the response in a wrong direction and large enough to design a unique DNA binding protein. However this assumes that such a thing would exist in the President's genome, that President's genome would be annotated by someone who really knew what they were doing to find it, and a proper fishing expedition would require whole genome sequencing, which would require a lot more DNA than a coffee mug would provide and can't really just be done secretly. Really though, even zinc finger DNA binding domains are incredibly big and cumbersome in a viral context and there really isn't way you could get such a recombinant virus to properly infect a cell much less spread through a population while holding on to the thing weighing it down.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:40 AM on October 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


By the time they're president, their DNA is guarded too well. That's why now is the time to start collecting the DNA of future candidates. Congressmen, governors, actors, wrestlers -- this could be crowd-sourced.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:11 AM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are many ridiculous things about this, but the best is the idea that the U.S. government would be interested in "leave[ing] no trace" when they can just use a drone to blow the shit out of whoever they don't like and any "militant" women and children standing nearby.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:50 AM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, as we learned post-9/11, there really are no "chemical or biological weapons" that are more effective than good old just blowing shit up. Even "dirty bombs" were kind of lame when you read about how localized the effects would actually be.

And then there were Saddam's dreaded "WMDs," which, even if they had existed, would have been WWI-vintage things like mustard gas, which are almost laughably inoffensive by today's standards.

I realize we need fodder for new and better video games (the main vector of U.S. military recruitment these days), but let's face it, we already invented the "ultimate weapon" in the nuclear bomb/missile. Everything else is going to be pretty lame by comparison.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:54 AM on October 27, 2012


I guess Blazecock Pileon's idea makes sense - a viral protein binds a polymorphism only found in the president that turns off or on another set of genes that makes the president's immune system more susceptible to the virus.

Well, maybe. Being able to custom-engineer a TF that binds to a sequence of DNA is in its young days. I've read of a bacteria that infects plants with a trans-kingdom TF which directs the plant cell to make proteins the bacteria can use, which was used to reverse-engineer a map between protein sequence and DNA sequence. From there, a synthesis and validation experiment was done to help improve some computational models for DNA binding. This was only within the last five years, if I remember correctly.

I wouldn't say what could or could not be done by a well-funded military lab, but I think we are probably a few years away from transcription factors being used as a bio-weapon. Probably easier to engineer (and, just as important, deliver) another kind of protein entirely.

Though I would agree that knowing if the leader across the table from you has a particular disease could potentially be useful intelligence, something you might find a way to take advantage of in other ways. Or if the dictatorship you're dealing with hands power down from father to son, knowing if there's a true hereditary relationship might give you leverage with the rest of the elite. I could definitely see a few low-tech but equally effective ways to use genetic data.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:39 AM on October 27, 2012


Also, as we learned post-9/11, there really are no "chemical or biological weapons" that are more effective than good old just blowing shit up. Even "dirty bombs" were kind of lame when you read about how localized the effects would actually be.

Even if they're not more effective, saying that they're at best as effective as a bombing campaign does not exactly set a low bar. According to Wikipedia the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo killed 13 people but affected thousands more. And that was just from a few hand-held packages rather than a big tank of the stuff or anything like that and was carried out by people who were trying to avoid killing themselves in the process.

And the point here is assassination anyways; anyone who has eaten polonium sushi could testify that it's effective, if they weren't already dead.
posted by XMLicious at 11:54 AM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hear everyone saying this is silly, but it is just one side of the upcoming trend towards genetically-tailored medicine and there is a lot of energy being spent in this area.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:57 AM on October 27, 2012


the best is the idea that the U.S. government would be interested in "leave[ing] no trace" when they can just use a drone to blow the shit out of whoever they don't like and any "militant" women and children standing nearby.

What if the United States wants to kill someone - perhaps a head of state - and wants plausible deniability? It's not like the US hasn't done it before...

Overall, the idea that the US has one good way of killing, drones, and therefore doesn't need any others isn't really very convincing...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:00 PM on October 27, 2012


Just a modern take on an old idea. The use of nail clippings or hair samples as a basis for conjuring up bad juju on the previous owner goes back at least as far as the Romans.
posted by BWA at 1:03 PM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


psycho-alchemy: "I hear everyone saying this is silly, but it is just one side of the upcoming trend towards genetically-tailored medicine and there is a lot of energy being spent in this area."

There has been a lot of heat around the idea of genetically-tailored medicine since the 90s and the beginnings of the Human Genome Project, but very little flame aside from procedures for the diagnosis of genetic diseases. Having the sequence of a creature's genome tells you about as much about them as having a phone book would tell you about a city - incredibly valuable in a lot of contexts but is about as useful in treating, or in this case making, actual disease as a phone book would be for telling you how to fix traffic.

The authors of this article are preying on the scientific illiteracy of their audience and counting on there being few enough people with the education to call them out on the sizable amount of fundamentally false shit they are communicating for them to get away with it. Sadly, with funding from NASA and Google, it seems to be a smart bet. These guys are associated with Ray Kurzweil at his 'Singularity University', a religious zealot who has discovered that if he uses words big enough he can be taken seriously by the media and public despite being to science what Harold Camping is to religion. There seems to be a whole cottage industry that has been recently built around the singularity movement set up to help people pretend they understand biology, and molecular genetics in particular, by calling it synthetic biology and making fanciful claims that people have different interests in being true.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:08 PM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah, here we go: Moscou and Bogdanove, "A Simple Cipher Governs DNA Recognition by TAL Effectors".

These TAL effectors are the bacterial transcription factors I mentioned, which bind to plant DNA and coerce the plant into making proteins that help the bacteria propagate. 34 of the amino acids in the transcription factor are highly conserved, except for residues 12 and 13, which are called an RVD or repeat variable diresidue.

Their variability is what allows binding to a specific DNA sequence, and the authors discovered how these two amino acids map to the DNA they bind (creating the "cipher"). Because we know how these RVDs map to DNA, the idea is that we can engineer a protein containing a custom polypeptide or sequence of amino acids that binds the specific sequence of DNA we want to target. And this is what a follow-up paper from earlier this year verified experimentally.

Another application of custom TALEs is to knock-down or knock-out gene expression. As to its use against someone you don't like, consider a custom-engineered TALE that binds to the promoter region of a gene in order to stop (or "silence") it. Say the gene makes a critical enzyme that your body needs to metabolize food, deal with intruding organisms, process waste products, etc. A knock-down or knock-out effect could potentially lead to symptoms of what would otherwise look like a genetic disorder.

So, the sci-fi stuff is theoretically doable, but it would have to be state-of-the-art. I could see the military funding a lab to work on this, or setting up DoD grants for basic research. The other, more mundane, low-tech approaches for leveraging the information from someone's genome are probably more likely applications.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:47 PM on October 27, 2012


They could fail to engineer a sequence specific virus capable of getting past the average person's immune system or they could just gift the World Leader in question a ferret they jabbed with hantavirus the night before.

It's not like either ingredient is lacking in the States right now.

If that seemed a little snarky, I was angrily ranting to my unsuspecting roommate for a few minutes there. Didn't get all exasperation out.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:58 PM on October 27, 2012


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