When barley beats barcodes

Could a fiddlehead fern become a front-line warrior in the battle against counterfeit goods? Some security experts now consider botanical DNA a secret weapon against brand fraud, said to cost American business about $450 billion a year. Leafy combatants against this high-tech scourge could be plucked from pretty much anyplace there's a hint of green, including, as one expert puts it, a potato or "the CEO's rosebush."

That theory is gaining ground. DNA fragments can be used as traceable "tags" in products - embedded in the ink on a label, for example, or on microchips. And while consumers won't soon be waving DNA readers over suspicious-looking Louis Vuitton bags, the technology does have advantages. Advocates point out that organic genetic code is inherently more complex - and far harder to duplicate - than synthetic, computer-created code.

One firm is already working to inject a little plant life into the product stream in order to help companies monitor their supply chains. Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS), a biotechnology firm in Los Angeles, says it has developed a method of processing, combining, and encapsulating botanical DNA fragments in a way that heightens the codes' complexity and ensures that markers made using them will remain readable for about 100 years. In some cases, the technology puts the DNA on computer chips. That version allows an electronic signal to authenticate the tag, much like automatic toll booths verify car stickers.

While plant-genomics experts and anticounterfeiting professionals express cautious interest in the development, some scientists are skeptical.

Preparing and easily detecting DNA without contaminating it "would be a very big leap," says Nadja Wehmeyer, director of the Biotech Project at the University of Arizona.

"It's pretty easy to sequence DNA," adds David Salt, associate professor of plant molecular physiology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., "so why couldn't you just go in and clone this DNA and just replicate it?" (ADNAS says the DNA is modified, and that breaking its "envelope" renders it unreadable.)

Questions aren't slowing the sell. A handful of private and government clients have begun testing the proprietary ADNAS technology, which the company closely guards. On March 2, Appleton, a thermal-printing company in Wisconsin that specializes in document security, announced a pilot program with ADNAS's technology in coatings for paper and film. And on Feb. 23, the US Department of Agriculture unveiled a joint research and development agreement aimed at fighting counterfeiting in the struggling textile industry.

"Our main goal is coming up with a solution for the industry," says David McAlister, research leader at the USDA's Cotton Quality Research Station in Clemson, S.C. Mr. McAlister says that when ADNAS first approached the USDA nearly two years ago, his staff had been searching for some kind of low-cost marker that would survive the harsh processes of manufacturing and help enforce trade agreements by ensuring country of origin. ADNAS, he says, has satisfied the questions of his own lab team. "We've looked at what they've done, and we think it has merit," he says.

Other federal agencies are interested. McAlister says that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, working with the Department of Energy, has gotten funding to pursue uses for the technology. (ADNAS says plant DNA could, for example, be suspended in crude oil.) "We have [also] talked to US Customs about what we're doing and they're very interested," he says.

DNA, of course, is a security marketer's dream, since courts now recognize it as the best way to determine identity. "It's not just the DNA," says Julia Hunter, ADNAS's director. "We construct, out of natural plant DNA, an even more complex marker.... We can do it for less than pennies per kilo," Ms. Hunter says. "And that's why we've been inundated, happily," with requests for information.

Hunter says the firm is pursuing more partnerships with papermakers and others to enhance watermarks, holograms, and other forms of identity assurance. Plant DNA could wind up in the paper packaging on pharmaceuticals, an area being exploited by counterfeiters. The world of documents, from passports to checks, could also be a rich vein to mine.

"Every time we come up with a new technology to try to thwart counterfeiting, somebody comes along with a way to get around it," says Katie Koppenhaver, president of the National Association of Document Examiners, in Princeton, N.J. "I could see some very good uses for something like this."

Ink-tagging has been used before. In the 1980s, many ink manufacturers used synthetic codes at the behest of the US government, says Bob Kullman, a document examiner at Speckin Forensic Laboratories in Okemos, Mich. It was meant to help establish, for example, the dates on which disputed papers were signed. And in 2002 a pair of professors at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine reportedly developed a system of embedding artificial human DNA in various products.

Early adopters of plant-DNA markers believe they're riding a green wave toward an accepted standard in fraud prevention.

"It offers a tremendously accurate method of tracing the origin or the construction of the products that we deal in," says Bob Poovey, chief executive officer of Champion Thread in Gastonia, N.C.

Champion supplies the industrial sewing thread for everything from towels and sheets to T-shirts - products that are made offshore and then sent to the US as finished goods. "We're taking baby steps because the technology is so new. But we have done a tremendous amount of testing," he adds, "and to date we have not had a failure."

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