Journal:Defending our public biological databases as a global critical infrastructure

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Full article title Defending out public biological databases as a global critical infrastructure
Journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology
Author(s) Caswell, Jacob; Gans, Jason D.; Generous, Nicolas; Hudson, Corey M.; Merkley, Eric; Johnson, Curtis; Oehmen, Christopher;
Omberg, Kristin; Purvine, Emilie; Taylor, Karen; Ting, Christina L.; Wolinsky, Murray; Xie, Gary
Author affiliation(s) Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Primary contact Email: karen at pnnl dot gov
Editors Murch, Randall S.
Year published 2019
Volume and issue 7
Page(s) 58
DOI 10.3389/fbioe.2019.00058
ISSN 2296-4185
Distribution license Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
Download (PDF)


Progress in modern biology is being driven, in part, by the large amounts of freely available data in public resources such as the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration (INSDC), the world's primary database of biological sequence (and related) information. INSDC and similar databases have dramatically increased the pace of fundamental biological discovery and enabled a host of innovative therapeutic, diagnostic, and forensic applications. However, as high-value, openly shared resources with a high degree of assumed trust, these repositories share compelling similarities to the early days of the internet. Consequently, as public biological databases continue to increase in size and importance, we expect that they will face the same threats as undefended cyberspace. There is a unique opportunity, before a significant breach and loss of trust occurs, to ensure they evolve with quality and security as a design philosophy rather than costly “retrofitted” mitigations. This perspective article surveys some potential quality assurance and security weaknesses in existing open genomic and proteomic repositories, describes methods to mitigate the likelihood of both intentional and unintentional errors, and offers recommendations for risk mitigation based on lessons learned from cybersecurity.

Keywords: cyberbiosecurity, biosecurity, cybersecurity, biological databases, machine learning, bioeconomy


Although an openly shared interaction platform confers great value to the biological research community, it may also introduce quality and security risks. Without a system for trusted correction and revision, these shared resources may facilitate widespread dissemination and use of low-quality content, for instance, taxonomically misclassified or erroneous sequences. Furthermore, as these public databases increase in size and importance, they may fall victim to the same security issues and abuses that plague cyberspace to this day. If we act now by developing the databases with quality and security as a design philosophy, we can protect these databases at a much lower cost and with fewer challenges than we currently face with the internet.

In this perspective article, the authors aim to outline some potential quality assurance and security weaknesses in existing public biological repositories. In the background section we provide a discussion of errors present in public biological databases and discuss possible security vulnerabilities inherent in their access, publication, and distribution models and systems. Both unintentional and intentional errors are discussed, the latter of which has not been given significant consideration in literature.[1] Afterwards, we attempt to introduce greater trust in the data and analyses by providing recommendations to mitigate or account for these errors and vulnerabilities and point to approaches used by other internet databases. Finally, we summarize our recommendations in the conclusions section.

This article focuses on databases which contain public and freely available data. We recognize that other biological databases exist which contain private, sensitive, or otherwise valuable data (e.g., human genomes). While unauthorized disclosure is not a formal concern in public, non-human databases, safeguarding against intentional or unintentional erroneous content is. Some approaches have been proposed to protect unauthorized disclosure[2][3][4] and, while we don't survey these approaches in this perspective, we note that the public database community may benefit from these ideas as well.

Background: Problems with public biological databases

Data integrity

An important goal for bioinformatics is the continuous improvement of biological databases. Given the rapid nature of this improvement and the rate of data production though, the content of these repositories is not without error. For example, the problem of contaminated sequences has been recognized for nearly two decades, with evidence stating that bacteria and human error are the two most common sources of contamination.[5][6] Ancient DNA is also particularly affected by human contamination.[7] These contaminants are frequently introduced during experiments[5][8] from natural associations and insufficient purification.[9] In the past few years, additional reports have highlighted cases of DNA contamination in published genome data[10][11], suggesting that DNA contamination may be more widespread than previously thought. We recognize that errors and omissions can occur in open databases both at the sequence and at the metadata levels, but for this article we mainly focus on sequence and taxonomic data concerns for the purposes of illustrating some of the many data integrity challenges possible.

In addition to contamination, two high-profile examples of sequence errors include the reassembly of a misassembled Francisella tularensis genome[12] and the identification of single nucleotide errors in a reference Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) genome.[13] Without a way to flag or remove the erroneous entries, future researchers are left to continually rediscover them. The errors in the reference TMV sequence are particularly disturbing. The taxonomic assignment corresponds to a pathogenic strain, but due to two erroneous single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), virions synthesized from the published reference sequence are atypically not infectious. Overlooked contamination in reference genomes can thereby lead to wrong or confusing results and may have major detrimental effects on biological conclusions.[14][15] While resequencing could be used to identify and correct sequence errors, it is only possible when the original source material is available. For the given example of single nucleotide errors in the TMV genome, the biological sample (sequenced in 1982) no longer exists. In addition to missing samples, samples of high consequence human and agricultural pathogens may not be available for resequencing.

Database integrity considerations for proteomics are generally similar to those for genomics because databases of protein sequences are derived from genome sequencing, via genome annotation and in silico translation. A sequence database error is unlikely to result in spurious detection of a protein that is present in the sample (false positive), but it could easily lead to a failure to detect a protein that is present (false negative). This is particularly concerning for discovery of accurate peptide signatures for use in targeted assays, a rapidly growing area of research.

In this section we discussed the issue of errors in genomic and proteomic databases and their impacts for research and application. Sources of these errors may include, among others, entry errors derived from data transfer, original errors derived from source data, and metadata errors (typically provenance-related) derived from the analysis pipeline. Original errors can arise from sequencing and sample preparation instrumentation chemistry, hardware, and software. Metadata errors can arise from bioinformatics software and faulty human interpretation. Each of these errors may be considered noise or the result of some other unintentional cause, but the key problem to note is that each element of the analytical process introduces some level of artifact when creating the analytical product, i.e., what is defined as a peak or a spot, what is the gene scaffold, what is the closed genome, etc. Any difference in process would therefore by its nature have some impact on the final genome. Our goal here is to start drawing connections between these process elements and genome anomalies.

Vulnerabilities and intentional tampering

In contrast to the data integrity issues discussed in the prior section, errors may also be intentionally introduced into a biological database. For example, consider the hypothetical scenario discussed by Peccoud et al.[16] whereby a graduate student reads an article and subsequently requests the plasmids described, but receives a faulty sample. It may be that the published sequences were fabricated, or that the source laboratory unwittingly sent faulty plasmids. One could also imagine a scenario where an intentionally mislabeled or harmful sequence is submitted to an open database that could later be unknowingly synthesized in a research setting or, more seriously, in a production capacity. Furthermore, depending on how sequences could be submitted to the database, the adversary may be able to keep the pathogenic sequence from being detected by certain anomaly detection heuristics.

Individuals may also exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in the database as a cybersystem, leading to errors introduced after publication of data despite manipulation and deletion controls. As with any database, biological databases can be compromised, enabling data integrity issues related to insertion, manipulation, exfiltration, and deletion of data, as well as providing a platform for privilege escalation, unauthorized surveillance, or distribution of malware. Ultimately, the effects of the operating environment and the tools used to deliver databases will inform the most appropriate threat model.

Approaches for improving biological databases

In 2000, a workshop titled Bioinformatics: Converting Data to Knowledge[17] tackled the question of biological database integrity as one of its focus areas. At that time, suggested solutions included building organism-type (e.g., eukaryote) specific grammar-based tools, enabling database self-validation through specialized ontologies, advocating for quality control in laboratories to minimize likelihood of errors, and authorizing only trained curators and annotators to enter data. They also recommended that data provenance be maintained so that the data history and evolution can be understood over time. These approaches broadly fall into two categories: ensuring integrity before or during data entry and analyzing data already in a database. Nearly 20 years later, we still emphasize the importance of quality control in laboratories and standardized data entry procedures, but it is clear that errors continue to make their way into databases for a variety of reasons. In this section, we highlight several categories of existing methods to detect data integrity issues in biological databases and outline the strengths and weaknesses of each. We also provide recommendations for improving biological database security.

Automated approaches for detecting anomalies

Some biological databases take the manual curation approach, such as the SwissProt subset of the UniProt (Universal Protein Resource Database). This effort requires significant resources to maintain, consisting of three principal investigators, a large staff, and external advisory board.[18] Given the complexity and exponential growth of biological data, automatic methods are needed.

Some tools have been developed to assess the technical quality of genome assemblies (e.g., QUAST[19]), their completeness in terms of gene content (e.g., BUSCO[20], ProDeGe[21]) and even their contamination level (e.g., acdc[22], CheckM[23]). Currently there are several analysis pipelines and search methodologies to detect potentially contaminated sequences in the published and assembled genome, such as Taxoblast[24], GenomePeek[25], homology search[26], and a multi-step cleaning process followed by a consensus of rankings.[27][28] All these tools and methods require human review or use of additional tools to distinguish true positive from true negative and are therefore not feasible at scale.


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This presentation is faithful to the original, with only a few minor changes to presentation, grammar, and punctuation. In some cases important information was missing from the references, and that information was added. The footnote in the original material were turned into an inline references for this version.