Sea lamprey to U.S. cybersecurity: Yes we can!

May 31, 2009

Remember how U.S. cybersecurity sucks?

Here’s Ars Technica‘s John Timmer on the new cybersecurity report [pdf]:

Perhaps the most striking thing about the report, however, is that it suggests that the US may be facing the prospect of being left as a technological backwater when it comes to security, and a national effort will be required to avoid that fate. The authors suggest a historic analog: “similar to the period after the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October, 1957, the United States is in a global race that depends on mathematics and science skills.” In response, it suggests that the new office develop a research and development framework, and accompany it with a public information campaign that will stress the importance of security considerations. If necessary, the government should incentivize the use of secure practices and equipment by private industry through programs like targeted tax breaks.

From Digits, the WSJ tech blog, here’s one expert’s reaction:

“They’re suggesting in this paper that if you don’t have good security, that you’ll be punished for it. The problem is that this is an evolving threat,” he said. “They seem to be waving the stick around a lot without having any serious carrots.”

I have absolutely no expertise in this area, so I’ll just point to some cool ideas for modeling computer security on the immune system.

While I’m at it, did you know sea lampreys have an unexpectedly sophisticated immune system?

lamprey240

From Science magazine’s Origins blog:

These eel-like creatures are often called “living fossils” because they are thought to have changed little since they arose 450 million to 500 million years ago, as part of a branch of jawless creatures that split off early from the rest of the vertebrate tree. Lampreys and hagfish are the only survivors of that jawless branch, and accumulating evidence indicates that the animals have developed an immune system far different from that of other vertebrates, including people. Today, in Nature, a team led by Max Cooper of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, unveils the latest chapter in this emerging evolutionary tale, providing data indicating that the sea lamprey has its own versions of B and T cells, the two cell types central to the so-called adaptive immune response found in people.

It’s not clear yet if the lamprey evolved its immune powers independently of the rest of us vertebrates, but if so, Holy convergent evolution, Lamprey-man!

I guess the lesson for us is this: if a living fossil can evolve itself an adaptive immune system, then surely the U.S. can find a way to keep the free world safe from even the wiliest of Chinese and Russian Lawnmower Men.

Update: NYTimesContractors Vie for Plum Work, Hacking for U.S.

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4 Responses to “Sea lamprey to U.S. cybersecurity: Yes we can!”

  1. John Timmer Says:

    I’ve not had the chance to look the paper over, but it wasn’t clear to me that this was necessarily a case of convergent evolution. One alternate interpretation that might be possible is that B-cells arose in our common ancestor with lampreys, but our variable immune systems evolved separately – ours is antibody based, there’s shares some of its features, but not the use of antibody molecules, i think.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    If you look into it, I’ll expect a report back. Harmonic convergence or no, my advice to U.S. cyberdefenders remains the same: Look to the mighty lamprey.

  3. John Timmer Says:

    Okay, skimmed the paper. It appears that T and B cell equivalents exist in lampreys – quite striking, since they lack the thymus that gives T cells their name. There’s some indication that lamprey T-like cells develop somewhere near the gill, which develops from the same tissue that the thymus does. So, it appears that the cells and their development are ancient.

    What’s different is how they recognize the foreign. Both lampreys and jawed vertebrates make molecules that undergo random assortment of gene segments to produce diverse receptors. But the genes involved and the mechanism of rearrangement are completely unrelated.

    Short version: T and B cells were in our last common ancestor, but their characteristic receptors evolved after our lineage split from jawless vertebrates.

    Authors’ version: “The evolution around 500 million years ago of two very different anticipatory receptors of comparable diversity in jawless and jawed vertebrates, while conserving similar compartmentalization of lymphocyte differentiation, strongly attests the survival value of adaptive immunity.”

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    Where my thoughts turn: Steven Jay Gould argued for the proper appreciation of contingency in evolution. If mass extinctions had ended favorably for different taxa, the dominant meso- and then macro-scale organism on this planet would have looked quite different from us and might have evolved survival mechanisms quite distinct from ours, depending on how far back you alter the tape of life. I think what he failed to emphasize — and maybe in his day it was the right tactic — was the power of “good tricks” such as adaptive immunity, vision, flight, and going back further, simple predation, which can’t be too much older (on a log-log plot) than autotrophy. Exapting Jared Diamond’s geographical argument, broad ecological features were probably destined to be what they are, and per Robert Wright, game theoretic logic will always favor certain specific patterns of free energy dissipation (?) on all relevant scales of organization. Like Jacques Monod said: chance and necessity.


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