Will DNA-infused spray replace the bar code?
Featured in San Jose Mercury News
Date: January 28, 2015
LIVERMORE — What if you could use your smartphone to tell if the apple you’re about to bite into has been genetically modified, if your bottle of extra-virgin olive oil was watered down with an inferior product, or if the Armani suit you purchased is genuine or a knockoff?
You might someday, with the help of an odorless, tasteless, DNA-infused spray that can trace food and other objects back to their origins like an invisible, uncounterfeitable bar code.
The technology is called DNATrax, and it was developed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory to expose gaps in biodefense. But since being licensed to the Livermore startup DNATrek, it’s proving to have a wealth of previously unimagined applications.
“It’s shifting the paradigm,” said Anthony Zografos, DNATrek’s founder and CEO. “It uses this diversity that exists in nature to now encode other information, whether this is traceability or something else in the future. It doesn’t need to be visual anymore. It doesn’t need to be something that is scanned electronically. … “It’s like the invention of ink. This is another form of ink that now enables a whole new field of applications, some of them we haven’t even thought of.”
The edible material, made of a mixture of powdered sugar and a small amount of DNA, was ruled safe by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive in 2014.
Livermore Lab scientist George Farquar led the team that invented the material, envisioning that it would simulate pathogens such as anthrax as a means to find leaks in the nation’s biodefense system. When released in powdered form, it travels like a cloud of dust, with each particle carrying a unique DNA sequence that can be traced back to its source, much like a fingerprint found at a crime scene.
Set for BART test
DNATrax has undergone tests at the Pentagon and later this month will be used for a Department of Homeland Security trial on BART to analyze how particulates — be it a pathogen, smoke or a chemical release — circulate on trains. The results, Farquar said, could lead to improved evacuation routes and better training for emergency responders.
Because the material is safe for human consumption, the next logical progression, Farquar said, was to apply the technology directly to food. The focus now has shifted to stopping the spread of foodborne illnesses by quickly tracing food back to its source.
The material can be sprayed on produce such as apples, oranges, spinach or eggs, either at the farm or along the food supply chain, creating a biological marker containing information such as where it was farmed, the date it was picked and where it was processed, in a way that can’t be removed, altered or reproduced. In essence, the DNA mixture would be “printed” on the produce, which is then mapped to a database.
In the event of a foodborne illness, such as a recent listeria outbreak linked to caramel apples, the produce can be swabbed, analyzed and the source identified using a polymerase chain reaction machine, a DNA copier and analyzer. Using the machine, it takes about an hour to identify all the data encoded in the spray, including the origin, which normally would take weeks or months to determine.
“It allows you to contain the economic impact,” Zografos said. “But you can also prevent occurrence and protect public health because you can zoom into the actual root cause quickly and address it while the tracks are still there.”
Contaminated foods hospitalize 128,000 Americans and foodborne illnesses kill about 3,000 each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recalls of contaminated products cost the food industry nearly $70 billion a year, according to the FDA.
Lab tests using the spray on produce transported from Oakland to Livermore have proved successful in matching the food with its origins, even after several weeks. Other tests have been done with nonfood objects sent through commercial shipping, with similar results.
Selina Wang, a research director at UC Davis and an expert on olive oil, said more than half of all olive oil found in stores labeled as “extra-virgin” actually isn’t. Instead, it’s watered down with cheap, low-grade oil missing the antioxidants of real extra-virgin olive oil. Using DNATrax at the farm could give consumers peace of mind that the product they’re paying top dollar for is legitimate and even the playing field for producers forced to compete with cheaters.
“It could be useful as a way for farmers (and producers) to have some sort of control over their fruit,” Wang said.
Wang said she hopes to test the product on olive tree orchards on the UC Davis campus and envisions a day when shoppers will walk into the supermarket and find extra-virgin olive oil carrying a DNATrax-certified label.
In the future, researchers say, the spray could also be used to tag and track other high-value goods, such as paintings, jewelry or designer clothes, and identify mislabeled foods. Eventually, they speculate, consumers will be able to use smartphone attachments to determine, in a matter of minutes, exactly where their food came from, or establish the authenticity of any number of goods. It could also have other national security applications, Farquar said, such as determining the efficacy of hazmat suits.
The technology has garnered interest from pharmaceutical companies, food producers, seafood companies and the Department of Defense. Over the next six months, the company will narrow its focus to partnering with producers and distributors and run a pilot program applying DNATrax to different commodities, putting them through the supply chain and making sure the technology works properly. Zografos said consumer applications may arrive within a year.
“We haven’t talked to anybody who has not been floored by the concept, and now we’re at the point where we’re trying to convert this into investment so we can get this whole project into gear,” Zografos said.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.