Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology (2019-05-01)

Cyberbiosecurity Challenges of Pathogen Genome Databases

  • Boris A. Vinatzer,
  • Lenwood S. Heath,
  • Hussain M. J. Almohri,
  • Michael J. Stulberg,
  • Christopher Lowe,
  • Song Li

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 7


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Pathogen detection, identification, and tracking is shifting from non-molecular methods, DNA fingerprinting methods, and single gene methods to methods relying on whole genomes. Viral Ebola and influenza genome data are being used for real-time tracking, while food-borne bacterial pathogen outbreaks and hospital outbreaks are investigated using whole genomes in the UK, Canada, the USA and the other countries. Also, plant pathogen genomes are starting to be used to investigate plant disease epidemics such as the wheat blast outbreak in Bangladesh. While these genome-based approaches provide never-seen advantages over all previous approaches with regard to public health and biosecurity, they also come with new vulnerabilities and risks with regard to cybersecurity. The more we rely on genome databases, the more likely these databases will become targets for cyber-attacks to interfere with public health and biosecurity systems by compromising their integrity, taking them hostage, or manipulating the data they contain. Also, while there is the potential to collect pathogen genomic data from infected individuals or agricultural and food products during disease outbreaks to improve disease modeling and forecast, how to protect the privacy of individuals, growers, and retailers is another major cyberbiosecurity challenge. As data become linkable to other data sources, individuals and groups become identifiable and potential malicious activities targeting those identified become feasible. Here, we define a number of potential cybersecurity weaknesses in today's pathogen genome databases to raise awareness, and we provide potential solutions to strengthen cyberbiosecurity during the development of the next generation of pathogen genome databases.