Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Future of Computer Security Might Be in Microbiology

The Future of Computer Security Might Be in Microbiology

We don't tend to consider computers as systems that exist within an environment. More likely, we imagine a computer within its own environment, an interior realm of memory slots, processor chips, and I/O devices. It's an old, lingering conception, but it's not that easy anymore. Computers exist in environments with other computers now, usually a vast numbers of them, and this opens the door to something unexpected: noise, whether it be in the form of a DDoS or Sybil attack or in the form of a cascading failure, a disruption within a network that threatens to wipe out larger and larger regions of that network's infrastructure as it propagates downward.

We may not think of these things as environmental noise, but a new paper out in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, courtesy of a team based at Carnegie Mellon University, invites engineers to look at the computing realm differently. 

Specifically, those engineers should look at yeast. Yeast knows how to deal with environmental noise. Each individual yeast cell carries around about 6,000 genes, but only about 20 percent of those are essential in the conventional sense of, if you silence it, the cell dies. This conventional view allows us to look at the other 80 percent as non-essential genes.

That's incorrect, according to today's paper. These "extra" genes play a role outside of the cell itself: typically found nearer to the surface of cells than essential genes, they are more likely to degrade and become unusable (because of extracellular noise). Over time, the yeast cells have evolved in such a way that these genes can be lost without costing the cell its survival. That's why they're closer to the edge of the cell, where there's more environmental stress, than the genes that, say, allow for DNA duplication.

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