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How Many Bits Does It Take To Kill You? 300

Posted by timothy
from the two-bits-buys-a-razor-blade dept.
pegr writes "Andrew 'bunnie' Huang, Reverse Engineer, XBox hacker, and generally smart guy, muses over the H1N1/swine flu virus as only a reverse engineer can: 'I now know how to modify the virus sequence to probably make it more deadly.' Not that he would, of course. bunnie has consistently made the esoteric available to us mere mortals, and his overview of the H1N1 virus is a fascinating read from a unique perspective." (Seen today also at the top of Schneier on Security.)
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How Many Bits Does It Take To Kill You?

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's like evolution is the demo coder and humans are the Amigas.

  • by 7-Vodka (195504) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:42PM (#29277977) Journal
    Making a virus more 'deadly' is usually not very good for the virus. If it's host dies, so does it's habitat. Not to mention the host can no longer really spread it.

    The Epstein-Barr virus [wikipedia.org], now there is a successful virus.

    • by binkzz (779594) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:43PM (#29277993) Journal
      It can be deadly and still be successful, just so long as it's not very fast (e.g. HIV).
    • by Otto (17870) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @05:14PM (#29278317) Homepage Journal

      Depends on how you define "deadly", of course. Making it more easily transmitted would be better for the virus, for example.

    • by Jurily (900488)

      The Epstein-Barr virus, now there is a successful virus.

      Did you just call the flu an unsuccessful virus? I dare you to show me two people in Europe or North America who never had it.

      However, I'm still not afraid. TFA is right: this is one fast mutating virus. So much in fact, that every possible mutation has appeared already. I'm too lazy do back it up with math, but the numbers should be interesting.

      • "So much in fact, that every possible mutation has appeared already."

        Even if such a statement could be verified mathematically AND historically - we still haven't seen every possible mutation in every possible situation in which it might be spread. The world has never before seen the population density we see today. Virulant outbreaks can span the globe in a week or less. The people at CDC are concerned for a reason.

    • by PCM2 (4486) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @05:27PM (#29278463) Homepage

      Making a virus more 'deadly' is usually not very good for the virus. If it's host dies, so does it's habitat. Not to mention the host can no longer really spread it.

      Be careful with that kind of thinking, because it's not strictly true. There's an oft-repeated saying that all diseases will naturally become less deadly over time because it doesn't pay to kill your host -- but in some cases it does pay.

      Consider something like cholera. Cholera gives you horrific diarrhea and vomiting, and the resulting dehydration can kill you pretty quickly, especially if you're very young or otherwise infirm. Going by the above-stated theory, that would normally be bad -- except that cholera exists in all your excretions, and other people can catch it from coming into close contact with those excretions. What's more, the normal route of infection is via contaminated water supply -- so if your excretions can make it back to the water supply, more's the better for cholera. Who cares if you drop dead?

      Similarly, malaria doesn't need you up and walking around to infect people. You can be lying on your deathbed and a mosquito can still fly in through the window, bite you, and then fly off and bite someone else. That's why, though malaria has been known since the dawn of human history, it never seems to become less of a health threat to humans. There's simply no evolutionary pressure in that direction.

      True, neither cholera or malaria is caused by a virus. But I just wanted to point out that the "evolution favors keeping your host alive" theory is rather too simplistic for the bigger picture of human disease.

       

      • by profplump (309017)

        You're still assuming that "killing the host" happens some non-trivial amount of time after "infecting the host" -- at some point the host won't be able to travel far enough to infect anyone who wasn't also at risk from the original point of infection. Given modern travel speeds that threshold is pretty small, but it certainly still exists; a virus that killed people within 1 minute of infection would never make it out of the building where it was first encountered.

        • by PCM2 (4486)

          Kinda thought that went without saying, judging from the number of viruses worldwide that exhibit the property of killing you one minute after infection (zero).

        • by geekoid (135745)

          In your unrealistic example, yes you are correct. IN the real world the time you need to keep the host viable and be a year before symptoms emerge. As long as the host does whatever is needed to spread the virus, you will see virus growth.

          For AIDS, you only need to have unprotected sex a few times and the virus will be successful. SO if you don't notice symton for a coupl of years, and you are sexually active, that's more then enough for the virus to propagate.

          Success being growth of infected people. I don'

          • by PCM2 (4486) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @12:46AM (#29281657) Homepage

            For AIDS, you only need to have unprotected sex a few times and the virus will be successful. SO if you don't notice symton for a coupl of years, and you are sexually active, that's more then enough for the virus to propagate.

            Actually, AIDS is not considered a highly infectious disease. Seriously. If you're having unprotected vaginal sex, it might take a great many times before the virus is successfully transmitted from a woman to a man. Scientists believe the actual rate of infection in such cases may be less than 1 percent. Sooooooooo.... feel better? Wanna risk it? Didn't think so.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        ONce tyou ahve spread, then the host can die and not impact the infection rate.
        Of course, spreading it to multiple host sis better, but one will do.

    • Unless you are creating a weapon... Obviously killing someone instantly would be worthless (just use a bomb), but if they could increase the mortality rate while maintaining the contagious period, then some crazy people might find it interesting.

    • by Darinbob (1142669)
      Yes, let's not hurt the virus or its feelings.
    • Increase propaganda through FUD is pretty bad as well. In relation to the USA.

      Regular Flu: Since January, more than 13,000 have died of complications from seasonal flu (April 2009)

      Swine Flu: Since January, 10 reported deaths (May 2009)

      In 1976, when 40 million people received the H1N1 vaccination over a period of a few months, the incidence of Guillain-Barre syndrome was about one out of 150,000.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillain-Barr%C3%A9_syndrome [wikipedia.org]

      "The flu season is upon us. Which type will we worry abou

      • by Splab (574204)

        The reason why they are scared aren't because it's ability to kill right now, the reason why they are scared and why you should be too is because:
        1. it spreads like wildfire - off season, imagine what kind of havoc this will do when the flu season starts.
        2. unlike most other, this will primarily hit young people, our immune system isn't geared for this, while this in the beginning wont cause many deaths, the consequences of having 20-30% of your working population off for a week or two due to sickness is re

    • by macraig (621737)

      I think the strains of HPV have that one beat hands down... they're the cause of ubiquitous warts, among many other persistent annoying things!

    • by CAIMLAS (41445)

      Provided the pre-symptom incubation period is fairly long, a deadly virus CAN spread far and wide.

      Let's say there's a flu mutation which has a 3-month incubation period, give or take a couple weeks. It has a mortality rate of 50%. However, we don't know about it until three months after the first couple infections - by which time it's likely that the majority of people who will catch it, have caught it. Voila, you've got a pandemic on your hands to which there is no prevention: it's only a matter of time un

  • by Trepidity (597) <.gro.hsikcah. .ta. .todhsals-muiriled.> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:43PM (#29277987)

    If only biologists had thought of the idea of treating DNA/RNA sequences as data, and then analyzing their properties statistically and computationally, with an eye towards what effects different modifications to the sequences might be predicted to have. We might call this field something fancy like "biological informatics".

    • OH SNAP

      Bunny got served

    • Re:fascinating! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Trepidity (597) <.gro.hsikcah. .ta. .todhsals-muiriled.> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:51PM (#29278069)

      (Replying to my own comment.)

      That said, it's a quite well-written tutorial-style article with engaging prose that tackles a number of the relevant issues. I just balked at the "reverse engineer takes on biology" angle, as if that were something biologists had never thought of.

      • (Replying to my own comment.)

        That said, it's a quite well-written tutorial-style article with engaging prose that tackles a number of the relevant issues. I just balked at the "reverse engineer takes on biology" angle, as if that were something biologists had never thought of.

        there are several instances in human history of inventions being developed independently in exactly at the same time.

        this is far different than the sheer ignorance "max tedroom" displayed with his series of tubes speech.

      • Re:fascinating! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Vornzog (409419) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 @03:30AM (#29282381)

        I just balked at the "reverse engineer takes on biology" angle, as if that were something biologists had never thought of.

        Interesting that you should say that - the traditional biologists, by and large, don't think of doing things like this. Bioinformatics is a catch-all for any number of different disciplines, all in relative infancy, and almost always pioneered by people outside the traditional biology arenas.

        I studied biochemistry in college, with a ton of extra math, physics, and computer science. Then I did a PhD developing DNA diagnostics for flu (awarded by the chem department, but I was a full time programmer and part time bench chemist).

        My first paper was applying Shannon informational entropy theory to big alignments of flu DNA to look for conserved regions. No one around me had a clue what the hell I was on about. The code I wrote for that paper is still used by the Flu Division at CDC.

        The only place where this article went wrong was in assuming that traits are trivially mapped to sequences. In practice, it almost always turns out to be extremely non-trivial, and in flu it almost doesn't work at all (the biologist figured out the easy cases years ago). Never the less, most really good science starts with some assumption that looks to be extremely over-simplified, and turns out to be very predictive.

        There is going to be a lot of room for hackers and coders in the biological sciences in coming years - computer science has solutions to problems the traditional biologists haven't even realized are problems yet. Data storage and retrieval to support high-throughput sequencing labs, new algorithms for large-scale data analysis, instrument networking for lab automation. The job postings will go up just as soon as the biologists figure out that they have a problem...

    • Re:fascinating! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by RobertB-DC (622190) * on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:54PM (#29278097) Homepage Journal

      If only biologists had thought of the idea of treating DNA/RNA sequences as data, and then analyzing their properties statistically and computationally, with an eye towards what effects different modifications to the sequences might be predicted to have. We might call this field something fancy like "biological informatics".

      Hahaha, I'm sure the biological informaticians are laughing their asses off. Kinda like we computer geeks did when the Not So Hon. Ted Stevens described the Internet as a "series of tubes".

      Meanwhile, though, I'm really enjoying the analogies that "bunnie" draws between DNA/RNA and computer bits. You see, I know a thing or two about computer bits, and ports, and stuff like that. And I know that DNA encodes proteins. But I didn't make the connection the way "bunnie" does, with a simple statement like this:

      If you thought of organisms as computers with IP addresses, each functional group of cells in the organism would be listening to the environment through its own active port. So, as port 25 maps specifically to SMTP services on a computer, port H1 maps specifically to the windpipe region on a human. Interestingly, the same port H1 maps to the intestinal tract on a bird. Thus, the same H1N1 virus will attack the respiratory system of a human, and the gut of a bird.

      That's probably baby science to a biological informatician, just like mapping to port 25 is baby networking to many of us. But for me, it makes the concepts click.

      Similarly, we all made fun of the "series of tubes" metaphor, without considering that for most of humanity, an electron is "the size and shape of a small pea" (Heinlein reference). If thinking of the Internet as a bunch of interconnected steampunk-style tubes that can get full (saturated bandwidth) helps a non-techie understand why they can't watch YouTube and play Halo at the same time... well, so much the better.

      • Re:fascinating! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Trepidity (597) <.gro.hsikcah. .ta. .todhsals-muiriled.> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:58PM (#29278147)

        Yeah, I probably should've been nicer. =] The Slashdot summary is actually more objectionable than the article is: as you point out, the metaphors in the article are quite well done. If you don't view it as "l33t XBox hacker discovers how to haxx0r viruses", but instead as "engaging tech writer uses computer terminology to explain how viruses work", it's much better.

        • Well, for my part, if I'd waited a couple of minutes I might have seen your reply to yourself where you noted that the article is better than it might have seemed! Ain't Slashdot great?

      • Ok, thanks for pointing this out. Like OP I was thinking "WTF does this kiddy try to conclude?", but if you see it from a purely computer scientist's side, it indeed might make sense.
    • by moon3 (1530265)
      Actually you are right, unfortunately for us they still booting their operating systems and learning SQL syntax, they had much trouble to read and sequence the DNA, now have PB of data waiting to be analyzed, it will take some years, decade or even decades, pretty likely our generation will not see any major and useful results from this DNA biology as this is just the very beginning of the research.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Trepidity (597)

        Yeah, it's true that there's some pretty lame stuff on the bioinformatics side too--- especially the early stuff has a feel of "hey guys what is computer", with books like Beginning Perl for Biologists [oreilly.com].

  • Error establishing a database connection

  • by itsybitsy (149808) * on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:48PM (#29278031)

    How many bits does it take to kill a human? Bits of what is the real question?

    Bits of information? Bits of bullets? Bits of concrete? Bits of glass? Bits of a virus?

    They can all get the job done given the right, er wrong, context.

    3.2KiB of data with the flu eh?

    How about three bytes, 24 bits, uttered from the mouth of Bush? "War"! That killed a whole bunch of people with a lot less information. Ok, sure there was lots of supporting info.

    Many people have died from a lot fewer bits than the flu needs.

    • Change 1 of the DNA base and the embryo cannot grow to completion. Change a base and a cancer can suddenly develop and go awry (for example, kill the apoptose system of the cells). Kill one bit in the mytochondrial DNA and you probably get the same. I am not a biologist , and I am sure there are a lot of redundant gene, but some might not.
      • The 26,000-some bit virus only exists in the context of a host that contains considerably more DNA information than that. To use the awful computer analogies, it's like running a 26K program on a 300MB interpreter system; the small program just calls some combination of really complex, pre-built functions that shouldn't be called in that combination.

        And keep in mind that the 300MB interpreter is meaningless without the context in which it executes: some physical machine.

    • Yeah... the flu virus is a kill routine written in assembly language source. In a sufficiently high-level language, executed by the correct interpreter, it could be done in much less space.

      Now... sic 'em, butch!

    • 1 bit is all it takes. Just beam one bit using the Star Trek transporter into the heart of a human and you have a dead human.

      Or another way; 0 bits. All humans already die. It is a built in feature. No add-ons are required.

    • 32 bytes, 256 bits..

      Don't you think she looks tired?
    • by Thuktun (221615)

      How many bits does it take to kill a human?

      Only 1, the evil bit [wikipedia.org].

  • by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:50PM (#29278055) Homepage

    I don't know, go ask Mr. Owl.

  • As we extinguish species by the ark load it's worth musing where all their on board viruses and bacterium will land when they jump ship onto a new species. Reminds me of the ship of sick sailors who landed in Italy with the first boat load of rats bearing the plague. Supposedly many of the viruses that now plague us have adapted to us by way of our domestic livestock, especially fowl. We may be setting the table for the little critters with our obsessive need for antibiotics and wiping all indoor surfaces d
    • Well of course they will have stronger immune systems, but will they get sick as much? Its kind of comparing someone active with strong bones compared to someone inactive with weaker bones. If the most activity you do is go up and down stairs, your risk of breaking a leg is probably less than someone who is into extreme sports, even if the person is healthier and has stronger bones than the person who does little activity.
    • by Lord Ender (156273) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @05:08PM (#29278249) Homepage

      That's not how it works. Viruses don't all-of-a-sudden start to mutate when they "need" to. They mutate all the time. If a virus could "jump ship" to another species, it is most likely to do that when its first host species is common, not when that species is going extinct.

      Your post is an example of a bad analogy substituting for intelligence. That's a common mistake. It's sort of like when your car won't start...

    • by PCM2 (4486)

      Supposedly many of the viruses that now plague us have adapted to us by way of our domestic livestock, especially fowl. We may be setting the table for the little critters with our obsessive need for antibiotics

      Trust me on this one: "Our obsessive need for antibiotics" isn't going to affect viruses in the slightest.

      and wiping all indoor surfaces down with lethal cleaners.

      If you're suggesting that disease pathogens get stronger when subjected to chemical microbicides, that's about as silly as suggesting we could breed a race of superhumans who are immune to poisoning by feeding people arsenic and letting the survivors breed.

      The Swiss did some research and found that farm kids raised tending livestock had stronger immune systems than Swiss city kids raised in sanitized urban housing.

      You'll have to clarify what that means. Does "stronger immune system" mean more antibodies were found in their bloodstreams? That just means they hav

  • by quatin (1589389) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @04:52PM (#29278085)
    Sounds like we need a firewall.
    • by 2names (531755) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @05:20PM (#29278361)
      Only if the firewall also performs deep packet inspection. Many bad critters (viruses/bacteria) enter the system by making our firewall(s) think they are innocuous by externally looking link other good critters. It is the payload that is the real problem. If we could teach the body to somehow read the payload before docking with the receptors we could be disease (contracted from viruses/bacteria) free.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TheSpoom (715771) *

        Only if the firewall also performs deep packet inspection. Many bad critters (viruses/bacteria) enter the system by making our firewall(s) think they are innocuous by externally looking link other good critters. It is the payload that is the real problem. If we could teach the body to somehow read the payload before docking with the receptors we could be disease (contracted from viruses/bacteria) free.

        Nanoprobe-supported organs. Once again, Star Trek has beaten us to it.

        • by Kjella (173770)

          Not to mention a rather nifty virus scanner in the transporter buffer... Oh yeah and you can patch it too. They even unintentionally made a backup copy of commander Riker. It's easy when you can just throw out every crazy idea you got.

  • A big ol' bit out of the jugular vein is enough to kill anyone.
  • by cariaso1 (674515) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @05:38PM (#29278641) Homepage
    http://ds9a.nl/amazing-dna/ [ds9a.nl] is a wonderful comparison of DNA to code
  • is how many bits would it take to kill his server.

  • " 'I now know how to modify the virus sequence to probably make it more deadly.' "
    I have some serious doubt. Ignoring the fact that 'make it more deadly' is a bit(lot) vague, it's not a pile of bits.
    Also, there is a long way between designing a virus, and being able to make it.

    OTOH, he does hack a trivial easy piece of hardware, so maybe he did it with dust tape, spit and MacGyvers seman.

  • by maxwell demon (590494) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @07:27PM (#29279685) Journal

    Looking at the amino acid and codon table [algoart.com] I noticed another interesting point: The triples which code for the same amino acid typically differ only in the last base. Indeed, this can be made stronger: Except for the STOP codon, in each set of codons with no more than four members, the first two bases are always the same (for those with more than four codons that's of course not possible). Moreover, quite a few amino acids have exactly four codons which differ only in the last base, i.e. the amino acid is completely and unambiguously determined by the first two bases alone. Indeed, one can rearrange this into the following 16-entry table:

    codon set ... amino acid(s)
      AA* ......... N (T/C) or K (A/G)
      AC* ......... T
      AG* ......... S (T/C) or R (A/G)
      AT* ......... I (T/C/A) or M (G)
      CA* ......... H (T/C) or Q (A/G)
      CC* ......... P
      CG* ......... R
      CT* ......... L
      GA* ......... D (T/C) or E (A/G)
      GC* ......... A
      GG* ......... G
      GT* ......... V
      TA* ......... Y (T/C) or STOP (A/G)
      TC* ......... S
      TG* ......... C (T/C) or W (G) or STOP (A)
      TT* ......... F (T/C) or L (A/G)

    Note how many lines only have one entry on the right hand side. Could this mean the genetic code evolved from a two-base version (with only 15 amino acids) to the current three-base version?

  • One bit (Score:4, Informative)

    by russotto (537200) on Tuesday September 01, 2009 @09:54PM (#29280791) Journal

    I'm pretty sure one bit can kill you... if your logic levels are 50,000V and -50,000V, anyway.

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. -- Woody Allen

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