LIVERMORE, Calif. – 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.
The technology, DNATrax, 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.
DNATrax has been tested at the Pentagon and was to be used in February for a Department of Homeland Security trial on how particulates — pathogen, smoke or chemical — circulate on trains.
Because the Food and Drug Administration ruled the material safe for human consumption, the next logical progression, the company 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 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.
DNATrax also could be a way for farmers to have control over their produce, said Selina Wang, research director at University of California-Davis. She said more than half of all olive oil found in stores labeled as "extra-virgin" actually isn't. Using DNATrax at the farm could give consumers peace of mind that the product they're paying top dollar for is legitimate.
In the future, researchers say, the spray could also be used to tag and track other high-value goods, such as paintings or designer clothes.