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naked-poliovirus.jpg poliovirus-with-receptors.jpg

Bruce Schneier has a post up on Teaching Virus and Worm Programming.

I allude to the A-life qualities of computer viruses and worms in my introductory computational biology class. Seems fair game to me. I'm not at Michal Zalewski's level, but dreaming's free...

Who's Michal Zalewski, you ask? Only the coollest virus designer ever (outside of SpookCountry, I guess...)

Sebastian authored a virus that could... perform cross-platform infections and install itself as a compiler trojan... The virus got named Califax and has been developed while writing Samhain as an exercise to demonstrate that it's fairly trivial to implement cross-system jumps even in a source form, and combine viral and worm activities...

Wormnet is used to distribute upgraded Samhain modules (eg. new exploit plugins), and to query other worms for compiled binaries.... We have four types of requests:

  1. infection confirmation: done simply by connecting to parent worm
  2. update request: done by re-infecting system
  3. update confirmation: download new code, verify code signature, swap process image, send update request
  4. platform request: first worm that can provide specific binary, should respond

Michal Zalewski, "I don't think I really love you" (or "writing internet worms for fun and profit"), 1998-2000

The class mentioned in Schneier's blog is taught by George Ledin at Sonoma State. Which is nearby.

I also talk about virus design in my undergrad class. Real viruses, that is; not computer ones. This, too, often raises peoples' heckles when I mention it (the East Bay moms' group that my wife is a member of laughed incredulously when they heard about it, presumably thinking I was some kind of Triax character).

Genetic engineering generates some fun ethical discussions. Take for example Eckard Wimmer's total synthesis of polio and Craig Venter's response, quoted below:

Scientists reported yesterday that they had constructed a virus from scratch for the first time, synthesizing a live polio virus from chemicals and publicly available genetic information.

The work, conducted by scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was financed by the Pentagon as part of a program to develop biowarfare countermeasures. The scientists constructed the virus using its genome sequence, which is available on the Internet, as their blueprint and genetic material from one of the many companies that sell made-to-order DNA.

Dr. Eckard Wimmer, professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Stony Brook and leader of the project, said they made the virus to send a warning that terrorists might be able to make biological weapons without obtaining a natural virus.

Some scientists criticized the work. ''I think it's inflammatory without scientific justification,'' said Dr. J. Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome and is trying to synthesize micro-organisms for uses like cleaning the environment. ''To purposely make a synthetic human pathogen is irresponsible.''

The new virus, when injected into the brains of mice, gave them a paralytic disease equivalent to poliomyelitis. However, the synthesized virus was much weaker than the natural one. Dr. Wimmer said he thought that was because his team deliberately introduced mutations into it to distinguish it from the natural virus.

New York Times, July 12, 2002

Looks like Wimmer did some earlier work with RNA structures. I teach that too cool!

Wimmer hit back at Venter's own research, one year after that article appeared in the NYT:

At a press conference on November 13, 2003 [Craig Venter and others] describe the fine-tuning of existing technologies for nucleic-acid synthesis... They stress that [their study] does not pose any threat to human health. This is correct. However, the protocol outlined in their study is directly applicable for the synthesis of DNA specifying human viruses.

Indeed, if bacteriophage phiX174 can be synthesized in two weeks, then most human pathogenic viruses can be synthesized in only a few months. This includes human immunodeficiency virus (the cause of AIDS), influenza viruses, Ebola virus, yellow fever virus, the coronavirus causing SARS, and others.

It should be recalled that Craig Venter has been the harshest critic of the chemical synthesis of poliovirus published one year ago, calling it "irresponsible" and "inflammatory without scientific justification"... In view of the implications for human health and national security, we find that [the] omission of a discussion of the possible rapid synthesis of highly pathogenic human viruses is hypocritical.

Dr. Eckard Wimmer

Here's Venter on the Colbert Report, just for fun; and (for balance) John Sulston in The Onion (outed here).


Discovery Date: 12/27/1998

Description Added: 09/24/2003

Califax searches for MsDos drives mounted on the local filesystem and if a dos version of the gcc is present on them, it infects the dos partition as well using the same technique.

Its code is designed to compile and run on both operating systems.

Califax was originally written as a proof of concept for platform independent viruses.

McAfee Threat Center,

-- IanHolmes - 13 Jun 2007 (updated 19 August)

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