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June 30, 2017

Polytechnic's Nancy Cooke to lead ASU's involvement in $6.2 million MURI award with the aim 'to deceive the deceiver'

In “The Art of War,” famed Chinese general Sun Tzu advised, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Along with five other universities, researchers from Arizona State University are bringing this age-old concept to digital battlefields to combat advanced persistent cyber threats and other forms of cyber malfeasance.

The project — titled "Realizing Cyber Inception: Towards a Science of Personalized Deception for Cyber Defense" — brings together experts in computer science, cybersecurity, game theory and cognition to conduct research on defending against cyberattacks by profiling the attackers. The work is supported by a $6.2 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative award, granted to the six partnering universities by the Army Research Office last month.

Nancy Cooke (pictured above, standing) explains the aim of the project in simple terms: “We’re trying to deceive the deceiver.” Cooke is a professor and human systems engineering graduate program chair and professor at the Polytechnic School, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

As a cognitive psychologist, Cooke’s role in the project is to gather data on human behavior using her DEXTAR (Cyber Defense EXercises for Team Awareness Research) simulator. The lab, which seats six people, will simulate cyberattack and defense scenarios for participating graduate students that Cooke will use to gather data.

That data will go to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, who in turn will create cognitive models of decision-making by attackers. Paired with a mathematical framework for modeling defenders and attackers in a cybersecurity environment, the cognitive models are used to develop examples of multilayered environments that can monitor attacks.

“What we’re doing is developing a personalized form of deception,” Cooke said. “We try to understand the attacker. Instead of a using a generalized honeypot, we specialize the offense against them, creating an environment in which they don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”

The types of attacks Cooke and her fellow researchers look to guard against have seen an uptick in recent years. For instance, in January, an assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded with high confidence that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through hacking.

“These kind of attacks are dangerous because they start out personal but become persistent and pervasive,” said Cooke, citing the 2014 cyber attacks against JPMorgan Chase and Sony Pictures, both of which resulted in extended data and communication breaches.

“A lot can happen once they’re in the system, opening doors to espionage and threats to national security,” said Cooke.

The University of Southern California leads the project, with Milind Tambe, a professor of computer science, at the helm. Carnegie Mellon; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; North Carolina State University; and the University of Texas, El Paso round out the partner institutions in addition to ASU.

“When the call went out for this, as it often happens, people at different universities started calling around to see if one another were interested,” said Cooke. “We thought our different skill sets would make for a good team, and evidently so did the ARO.”

This marks the third MURI award Cooke has been a part of, the previous two awarded by the Office of Naval Research and the Army Research Office. One examined macro-cognition in a naval setting and how to improve teamwork during operations, while the other studied situational awareness in cybersecurity.

 

Top photo: Professor Nancy Cooke works with a student in the Cyber Defense EXercises for Team Awareness Research simulator, known as DEXTAR, on ASU's Polytechnic campus. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Pete Zrioka

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-5618

 
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Solving a sweet problem for renewable biofuels and chemicals

June 30, 2017

ASU scientists harness the trial-and-error power of evolution to coax nature into revealing answer to energy challenge

Whether or not society shakes its addiction to oil and gasoline will depend on a number of profound environmental, geopolitical and societal factors.

But with current oil prices hovering around $50 dollars a barrel, it won’t likely be anytime soon.

Despite several major national research initiatives, no one has been able to come up with the breakthrough renewable biofuel technology that would lead to a cheaper alternative to gasoline. 

That research challenge led ASU scientists Reed Cartwright and Xuan Wang to enter the fray, teaming up to try to break through the innovation bottleneck for the renewable bioproduction of fuels and chemicals.

“My lab has been very interested in converting biomass such as agricultural wastes and even carbon dioxide into useful and renewable bio-based products,” said Wang
(pictured above, right), an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences. “As a microbiologist, I’m interested in manipulating microbes as biocatalysts to do a better job.”

To do so, they’ve looked into a new approach: harnessing the trial-and-error power of evolution to coax nature into revealing the answer.

By growing bacteria over generations under specially controlled conditions in fermentation tanks, they have test-tube-evolved bacteria to better ferment sugars derived from biomass — a rich, potential renewable-energy source for the production of biofuels and chemicals. Their results appeared recently in the online edition of PNAS.

The research team includes postdoctoral scholar Christian Sievert, Lizbeth Nieves, Larry Panyon, Taylor Loeffler and Chandler Morris, and was led by Cartwright and Wang, in a collaboration between the ASU’s School of Life Sciences and the Biodesign Institute.

A sweet problem

The appeal of plants is ideal. Just add a little carbon dioxide, water and plentiful sunshine, and presto! Society has a rich new source of renewable carbons to use.  

Corn ethanol (using starch from corn for alcohol production primarily in the U.S.) has been one major biofuel avenue, and sugarcane another alternative (abundant in Brazil) — but there is a big drawback. Turning the sugar-rich kernels of corn or sugarcane into ethanol competes with the food supply.

So scientists over the past few decades have migrated to research on conversion of non-food-based plant materials into biofuels and chemicals. These so-called lignocellulosic biomasses, like tall switchgrasses and the inedible parts of corn and sugarcane (stovers, husks, bagasses, etc.) are rich in xylose, a five-carbon, energy-rich sugar relative of glucose.

Lignocellulosic biomass has an abundance of glucose and xylose, but industrial E. coli strains can’t use xylose because when glucose is available, it turns off the use of xylose. And so, to date, it has been an inefficient and costly to fully harvest and convert the xylose to biofuels. 

Benchtop evolution

Wang and Cartwright wanted to squeeze out more energy from xylose sugars. To do so, they challenged E. coli bacteria that could thrive comfortably on glucose — and switch out the growth medium broth to grow solely on xylose.

The bacteria would be forced to adapt to the new food supply or lose the growth competition.

They started with a single colony of bacteria that were genetically identical and ran three separate evolution experiments with xylose. At first, the bacteria grew very slowly. But remarkable, in no more than 150 generations, the bacteria adapted and, eventually, learned to thrive in the xylose broth. 

Next, they isolated the DNA from the bacteria and used next-generation DNA sequencing technology to examine the changes within the bacteria genomes. When they read out the DNA data, they could identify the telltale signs of evolution in action, mutations.

Nature finds a way

The bacteria, when challenged, randomly mutated their DNA until it could adapt to the new conditions. They held on to the fittest mutations over generations until they became fixed beneficial mutations.

And in each case, when challenged with xylose, the bacteria could grow well. Their next task was to find out what these beneficial mutations were and how did they work. To grow better on xylose, the three bacterial E. coli lines had “discovered” a different set of mutations to the same genes. The single mutations the research team identified all could enhance xylose fermentation by changing bacterial sugar metabolism.

“This suggests that there are potentially multiple evolutionary solutions for the same problem, and a bacterium’s genetic background may predetermine its evolutionary trajectories,” said Cartwright, a researcher at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences.  

The most interesting mutation happened in a regulatory protein called XylR whose normal function is to control xylose utilization. Just two amino acid switches in the XylR could enhance xylose utilization and release the glucose repression, even in the non-mutated original hosts.

Through some clever genetic tricks, when the XlyR mutant was placed back in a normal “wild-type” strain or an industrial E. coli biocatalyst, it could also now grow on xylose and glucose, vastly improving the yield. Wang’s team saw up to a 50 percent increase in the product after four days of fermentation. 

Together, Wang and Cartwright’s invention has now significantly boosted the potential of industrial E. coli to be used for biofuel production from lignocellulosic materials. In addition, they could use this same genetic approach for other E. coli strains for different products.

Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE) is filing a non-provisional patent for their discovery. Wang hopes they can partner with industry to scale up their technology and see if this invention will increase economic viability for bioproduction.  

“With these new results, I believe we’ve solved one big, persistent bottleneck in this field,” Wang said. 

 

Top photo: ASU undergraduate Eric Taylor (left) and Xuan Wang demonstrate the fermentation tanks used in the benchtop evolution experiments.​

Joe Caspermeyer

Managing editor , Biodesign Institute

480-258-8972