Saving the World from Bio-Disaster

Identifying and Preventing Harmful Genetic Sequencing

by Taivara, Technology Innovation

Deadly Bio-Threats

A lot of people don’t know, but there is an entire industry of synthesizing DNA sequences. With emerging technologies like CRISPR scientists can quickly edit and create custom DNA sequences.

What was once only an idea in science-fiction films like Gattaca, gene-customization is now becoming a reality. Science is taking its first steps toward eradicating deadly diseases, correcting fatal genetic mutations in fetuses, and even resurrecting extinct species.

The technology is becoming less expensive and widely available around the world.

While this may seem like fantastic news, gene-editing can pose a serious threat to national security. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has included genome editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction.

In the wrong hands, bioterrorists could edit and combine less-dangerous genetic strains into extraordinarily powerful diseases, viruses, and neuroweapons that could wipe out millions.

“Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications” states James Clapper.

For less than $500, someone could potentially order a few seemingly-ordinary genetic strains and combine them to create, for example, West Nile virus.

It’s almost impossible for companies who create these genetic sequences to know if they’re creating a strain that could, intentionally or accidentally, be turned into the next pandemic.

At least until now…

Commercializing IP

A client of ours traditionally worked as a government contractor, bidding on and executing large government contracts.

They wanted to try something different, however. They wanted to create and directly sell a product of their own built off intellectual property they had developed throughout the years, opening new sources of revenue and proving they could profit from their past research and development efforts.

This project would be a huge stepping stone for the multi-billion dollar organization.

The Cure

Our client had developed a proprietary algorithm that could read genetic sequences and determine if they could be used to create harmful bio-threats.

The plan was to productize this algorithm and sell it to gene sequencing labs to ensure they weren’t accidentally supplying bio-terrorists and heedless scientists with the tools to create a bio-weapon of mass destruction.

While our client could fulfill multi-billion-dollar government contracts and build world-saving genetic screening algorithms in their sleep, they recognized that productionizing scalable, user-friendly applications was new to them and not something they could do on their own.

They brought in Taivara to turn their algorithm into a product.

Teaching to Fish

Our goal wasn’t to step in, do the work, then step out leaving our client helpless when future work needed to be done.

Our goal was to teach our client modern-day best practices for launching user-friendly, scalable products so that by the time our work was done, they could remain self-sufficient and productive.

User Friendly

First, we took their proprietary algorithm and made it user-accessible.

Using Redux and RxJS we created a frontend architecture. This UI allowed customers to interact with the algorithm on the web with buttons and clicks rather than the original “command-line style” you used to see in the ’90s.

We established core design patterns so that future changes and additions to the UI could be quick and simple.

We built a user-management system that allowed customers to set up their own users, each with individual usernames and password. The backend was built with Python using Flask against a Postgres SQL. We chose Python due to its well-established reputation for data-analysis and the availability of many scientific libraries.

Scalable DevOps

Part of creating the product included ensuring it was fast and could scale. This means the product had to compute quickly and handle increases in usage without crashing.

Given the intensity of this algorithm, we needed a lot of computing power for users to access and run, sometimes many at once, sometimes not. Using Docker containers in Kubernetes, we could quickly spin up more server space at the moment it was needed ensuring quick access and minimal crashes. When space was not needed, we could spin down servers saving money on server costs.

Safe & Secure

Obviously, a product of this nature needed tight security built in from the beginning. Besides just the usual data encryption, we built very stringent security measurements into the app.

We hosted the application in AWS GovCloud which is designed specifically to address strict U.S. government security & compliance requirements. We also stored everything in various locked-down subnets that could not be accessible to the world wide web so that we could ensure only the right people could get access to the right networks.

Once everything worked and security was tight, we were ready to launch.

High Score

The product received high attention and praise from the company’s CEO. This was a giant step toward new beginnings for the company.

When the product was finalized, it underwent a certification test for DNA sequence analysis, the standard for the industry. The goal of the test is to take a large test data file and find as many threats as you can with a minimum amount of false-positives.

To say that we scored well on this test would be a severe understatement. We destroyed it. Scoring a 100% with 0 false positives, we set a new standard for genetic sequence screening, making the test obsolete.

The product continues to grow and evolve using best practices taught by the Taivara team.

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