'Spray-on DNA' to track fresh food

Apples and DNA strandsA group of US graduate students have helped create a new system that could allow fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables to be traced using a spray-on DNA system.

The three students - Alyssa Boutelle, Michael Petri and Lauren Gilbert from the University of Oklahoma (OU) - have helped develop a potential new market opportunity for a lab technology known as DNATrax, which is licensed to California start-up DNATREK.

The students found that DNATrax technology could be sprayed on food by produce suppliers at their source. Then, if contaminated food got through the supply chain and reached consumers, the US food and drugs regulator the FDA, or the manufacturer, could trace it back to the source.

The technology combines FDA-approved sugars and a unique non-biological DNA bar code to produce a micro-particle that stimulates the aerosols in the air to track the source of contaminants.

DNATrax logo"We found that specifically within the food traceability market, the tracking of high-risk commodity foods offered the most promising market entry point for DNATrax," says Petri, an OU mechanical engineering graduate student who helped develop the system.

It works by swabbing the food’s surface and testing the samples using a polymerase chain reaction to read the bar code. Authorities could then look up the bar code in the database and immediately know the source of the tainted food.

"This is a dramatic improvement over the standard 16 days that are required in a recall to trace back to the source," Petri explains. "Because food products can be traced back more quickly, fewer people will get sick from eating contaminated products, which will result in fewer lawsuits for food processors."

The students also researched a secondary market for indoor air quality management. The applications for the product include indoor air quality detection for homes, offices, ships and airplanes; urban particulate tracking for subways stations, train stations and convention centres; environmental release tracking; and oil and gas uses, including fracking, to better track fluid flow.

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