Zografos, founder and CEO of DNA Trek, sprays a
solution on an apple that will allow reseachers to
trace the apple back to its original source, on
Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, at Lawrence Livermore
Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.
Calif. ó What if you could use your smartphone to tell
if the apple youíre 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
might someday, with the help of an odorless, tasteless,
DNA-infused spray that can trace food and other objects
back to their origins.
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, itís proving to have a wealth of
previously unimagined applications.
uses this diversity that exists in nature to now encode
other information, whether this is traceability or
something else in the future," said Anthony
Zografos, DNATrekís founder and chief executive.
"It doesnít need to be visual anymore. It doesnít
need to be something that is scanned electronically. ...
Itís like the invention of ink. This is another form
of ink that now enables a whole new field of
applications, some of them we havenít even thought
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.
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 nationís 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.
has been tested at the Pentagon and later this month
will be used for a Department of Homeland Security trial
on BART to analyze how particulates ó pathogen, smoke
or chemicaló circulate on trains. The results, Farquar
said, could lead to improved evacuation routes and
better training for emergency responders.
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.
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 canít be removed, altered or reproduced. In
essence, the DNA mixture would be "printed" on
the produce, which is then mapped to a database.
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
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."
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.
tests using the spray on produce transported from
Oakland to Livermore were 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.
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 isnít.
Instead, itís 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 theyíre paying top dollar for is
legitimate and even the playing field for producers
forced to compete with cheaters.
could be useful as a way for farmers (and producers) to
have some sort of control over their fruit," 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
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.
technology has attracted interest from pharmaceutical
companies, food producers, seafood companies and the
Defense Department. 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.
havenít talked to anybody who has not been floored by
the concept, and now weíre at the point where weíre
trying to convert this into investment so we can get
this whole project into gear," Zografos said.