The US Is Collecting the DNA of World Leaders
2012 11 30

By Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman and Steven Kotler |

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.

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 ( and the writing of encyclopedias (, 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 University undergrad with a knack for virology. His design was quickly forwarded to a thriving Shanghai-based online bio-marketplace. Less than a minute later, an Icelandic synthesis start‑up won the contract to turn the 5,984-base-pair blueprint into actual genetic material. Three days after that, a package of 10‑milligram, fast-dissolving microtablets was dropped in a FedEx envelope and handed to a courier.

Two days later, Samantha, a sophomore majoring in government at Harvard University, received the package. Thinking it contained a new synthetic psychedelic she had ordered online, she slipped a tablet into her left nostril that evening, then walked over to her closet. By the time Samantha finished dressing, the tab had started to dissolve, and a few strands of foreign genetic material had entered the cells of her nasal mucosa.

Some party drug—all she got, it seemed, was the flu. Later that night, Samantha had a slight fever and was shedding billions of virus particles. 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. Sure, thousands of people on campus would be sniffling, but the Secret Service probably wouldn’t think anything was amiss.

It was December, after all—cold-and-flu season.

The scenario we’ve just sketched may sound like nothing but science fiction—and, indeed, it does contain a few futuristic leaps. Many members of the scientific community would say our time line is too fast. But consider that since the beginning of this century, rapidly accelerating technology has shown a distinct tendency to turn the impossible into the everyday in no time at all. Last year, IBM’s Watson, an artificial intelligence, understood natural language well enough to whip the human champion Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. As we write this, soldiers with bionic limbs are returning to active duty, and autonomous cars are driving down our streets. Yet most of these advances are small in comparison with the great leap forward currently under way in the biosciences—a leap with consequences we’ve only begun to imagine.

More to the point, consider that the DNA of world leaders is already a subject of intrigue. According to Ronald Kessler, the author of the 2009 book In the President’s Secret Service, Navy stewards gather bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched—they are later sanitized or destroyed—in an effort to keep would‑be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material. (The Secret Service would neither confirm nor deny this practice, nor would it comment on any other aspect of this article.) And according to a 2010 release of secret cables by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directed our embassies to surreptitiously collect DNA samples from foreign heads of state and senior United Nations officials. Clearly, the U.S. sees strategic advantage in knowing the specific biology of world leaders; it would be surprising if other nations didn’t feel the same.

While no use of an advanced, genetically targeted bio-weapon has been reported, the authors of this piece—including an expert in genetics and microbiology (Andrew Hessel) and one in global security and law enforcement (Marc Goodman)—are convinced we are drawing close to this possibility. Most of the enabling technologies are in place, already serving the needs of academic R&D groups and commercial biotech organizations. And these technologies are becoming exponentially more powerful, particularly those that allow for the easy manipulation of DNA.

The evolution of cancer treatment provides one window into what’s happening. Most cancer drugs kill cells. Today’s chemotherapies are offshoots of chemical-warfare agents: we’ve turned weapons into cancer medicines, albeit crude ones—and as with carpet bombing, collateral damage is a given. But now, thanks to advances in genetics, we know that each cancer is unique, and research is shifting to the development of personalized medicines—designer therapies that can exterminate specific cancerous cells in a specific way, in a specific person; therapies focused like lasers.

To be sure, around the turn of the millennium, significant fanfare surrounded personalized medicine, especially in the field of genetics. A lot of that is now gone. The prevailing wisdom is that the tech has not lived up to the talk, but this isn’t surprising. Gartner, an information-technology research-and-advisory firm, has coined the term hype cycle to describe exactly this sort of phenomenon: a new technology is introduced with enthusiasm, only to be followed by an emotional low when it fails to immediately deliver on its promise. But Gartner also discovered that the cycle doesn’t typically end in what the firm calls “the trough of disillusionment.” Rising from those ashes is a “slope of enlightenment”—meaning that when viewed from a longer-term historical perspective, the majority of these much-hyped groundbreaking developments do, eventually, break plenty of new ground.

As George Church, a geneticist at Harvard, explains, this is what is now happening in personalized medicine. “The fields of gene therapies, viral delivery, and other personalized therapies are progressing rapidly,” Church says, “with several clinical trials succeeding into Phase 2 and 3,” when the therapies are tried on progressively larger numbers of test subjects. “Many of these treatments target cells that differ in only one—rare—genetic variation relative to surrounding cells or individuals.” The Finnish start-up Oncos Therapeutics has already treated close to 300 cancer patients using a scaled-down form of this kind of targeted technology.

These developments are, for the most part, positive—promising better treatment, new cures, and, eventually, longer life. But it wouldn’t take much to subvert such therapies and come full circle, turning personalized medicines into personalized bioweapons. “Right now,” says Jimmy Lin, a genomics researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and the founder of Rare Genomics, a nonprofit organization that designs treatments for rare childhood diseases based on individual genetic analysis, “we have drugs that target specific cancer mutations. Examples include Gleevec, Zelboraf, and Xalkori. Vertex,” a pharmaceutical company based in Massachusetts, “has famously made a drug for cystic-fibrosis patients with a particular mutation. The genetic targeting of individuals is a little farther out. But a state-sponsored program of the Stuxnet variety might be able to accomplish this in a few years. Of course, this work isn’t very well known, so if you tell most people about this, they say that the time frame sounds like science fiction. But when you’re familiar with the research, it’s really feasible that a well-funded group could pull this off.” We would do well to begin planning for that possibility sooner rather than later.

If you really want to understand what’s happening in the biosciences, then you need to understand the rate at which information technology is accelerating. In 1965, Gordon Moore famously realized that the number of integrated-circuit components on a computer chip had been doubling roughly every year since the invention of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s. Moore, who would go on to co-found Intel, predicted that the trend would continue “for at least 10 years.” He was right. The trend did continue for 10 years, and 10 more after that. All told, his observation has remained accurate for five decades, becoming so durable that it’s now known as “Moore’s Law” and used by the semi-conductor industry as a guide for future planning.

Moore’s Law originally stated that every 12 months (it is now 24 months), the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double—an example of a pattern known as “exponential growth.” While linear growth is a slow, sequential proposition (1 becomes 2 becomes 3 becomes 4, etc.), exponential growth is an explosive doubling (1 becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8, etc.) with a transformational effect. In the 1970s, the most powerful supercomputer in the world was a Cray. It required a small room to hold it and cost roughly $8 million. Today, the iPhone in your pocket is more than 100 times faster and more than 12,000 times cheaper than a Cray. This is exponential growth at work.

In the years since Moore’s observation, scientists have discovered that the pattern of exponential growth occurs in many other industries and technologies. The amount of Internet data traffic in a year, the number of bytes of computer data storage available per dollar, the number of digital-camera pixels per dollar, and the amount of data transferable over optical fiber are among the dozens of measures of technological progress that follow this pattern. In fact, so prevalent is exponential growth that researchers now suspect it is found in all information-based technology—that is, any technology used to input, store, process, retrieve, or transmit digital information.

Over the past few decades, scientists have also come to see that the four letters of the genetic alphabet—A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine)—can be transformed into the ones and zeroes of binary code, allowing for the easy, electronic manipulation of genetic information. With this development, biology has turned a corner, morphing into an information-based science and advancing exponentially. As a result, the fundamental tools of genetic engineering, tools designed for the manipulation of life—tools that could easily be co-opted for destructive purposes—are now radically falling in cost and rising in power. Today, anyone with a knack for science, a decent Internet connection, and enough cash to buy a used car has what it takes to try his hand at bio-hacking.

These developments greatly increase several dangers. The most nightmarish involve bad actors creating weapons of mass destruction, or careless scientists unleashing accidental plagues—very real concerns that urgently need more attention. Personalized bioweapons, the focus of this story, are a subtler and less catastrophic threat, and perhaps for that reason, society has barely begun to consider them. Yet once available, they will, we believe, be put into use much more readily than bioweapons of mass destruction. For starters, while most criminals might think twice about mass slaughter, murder is downright commonplace. In the future, politicians, celebrities, leaders of industry—just about anyone, really—could be vulnerable to attack-by-disease. Even if fatal, many such attacks could go undetected, mistaken for death by natural causes; many others would be difficult to pin on a suspect, especially given the passage of time between exposure and the appearance of symptoms.

Moreover—as we’ll explore in greater detail—these same scientific developments will pave the way, eventually, for an entirely new kind of personal warfare. Imagine inducing extreme paranoia in the CEO of a large corporation so as to gain a business advantage, for example; or—further out in the future—infecting shoppers with the urge to impulse-buy.

We have chosen to focus this investigation mostly on the president’s bio-security, because the president’s personal welfare is paramount to national security—and because a discussion of the challenges faced by those charged with his protection will illuminate just how difficult (and different) “security” will be, as biotechnology continues to advance.

A direct assault against the president’s genome requires first being able to decode genomes. Until recently, this was no simple matter. In 1990, when the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health announced their intention to sequence the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome over the next 15 years, it was considered the most ambitious life-sciences project ever undertaken. Despite a budget of $3 billion, progress did not come quickly. Even after years of hard work, many experts doubted that the time and money budgeted would be enough to complete the job.

This started to change in 1998, when the entrepreneurial biologist J. Craig Venter and his company, Celera, got into the race. Taking advantage of the exponential growth in biotechnology, Venter relied on a new generation of gene sequencers and a novel, computer-intensive approach called shotgun sequencing to deliver a draft human genome (his own) in less than two years, for $300 million.

Venter’s achievement was stunning; it was also just the beginning. By 2007, just seven years later, a human genome could be sequenced for less than $1 million. In 2008, some labs would do it for $60,000, and in 2009, $5,000. This year, the $1,000 barrier looks likely to fall. At the current rate of decline, within five years, the cost will be less than $100. In the history of the world, perhaps no other technology has dropped in price and increased in performance so dramatically.

Still, it would take more than just a gene sequencer to build a personally targeted bioweapon. To begin with, prospective attackers would have to collect and grow live cells from the target (more on this later), so cell-culturing tools would be a necessity. Next, a molecular profile of the cells would need to be generated, involving gene sequencers, micro-array scanners, mass spectrometers, and more. Once a detailed genetic blueprint had been built, the attacker could begin to design, build, and test a pathogen, which starts with genetic databases and software and ends with virus and cell-culture work. Gathering the equipment required to do all of this isn’t trivial, and yet, as researchers have upgraded to new tools, as large companies have merged and consolidated operations, and as smaller shops have run out of money and failed, plenty of used lab equipment has been dumped onto the resale market. New, the requisite gear would cost well over $1 million. On eBay, it can be had for as little as $10,000. Strip out the analysis equipment—since those processes can now be outsourced—and a basic cell-culture rig can be cobbled together for less than $1,000. Chemicals and lab supplies have never been easier to buy; hundreds of Web resellers take credit cards and ship almost anywhere.

Biological knowledge, too, is becoming increasingly democratized. Web sites like JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments) provide thousands of how-to videos on the techniques of bioscience. MIT offers online courses. Many journals are going open-access, making the latest research, complete with detailed sections on materials and methods, freely available. If you wanted a more hands-on approach to learning, you could just immerse yourself in any of the dozens of do-it-yourself-biology organizations, such as Genspace and BioCurious, that have lately sprung up to make genetic engineering into something of a hobbyist’s pursuit. Bill Gates, in a recent interview, told a reporter that if he were a kid today, forget about hacking computers: he’d be hacking biology. And for those with neither the lab nor the learning, dozens of Contract Research and Manufacturing Services (known as CRAMS) are willing to do much of the serious science for a fee.


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