Foiling counterfeiters with DNA tags.
By Adam Swenson
One of the biggest challenges manufacturers face is counterfeiting, an illicit industry that continues to grow. Counterfeiting in the EU has increased more than tenfold during the past 10 years, from 7,553 cases of counterfeit goods seized in 2002 to more than 90,000 seized in 2012. The International Chamber of Commerce forecasts the global value of counterfeit goods to top $1.7 trillion by 2017.
For companies that work with commercial textiles, this presents a problem: how can you be sure your products are being made to your specifications?
Most of the counterfeiting is happening at plants in China. Without robust quality control mechanisms in place, companies using these plants cannot ensure their products remain unadulterated throughout the supply chain. “There are warranty claims made on fabrics,” says MeiLin Wan, executive director of project development at Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS) Inc. “You might have an awning that is meant to look good after five years, but within six months it is totally faded and not working â€¦ There are things happening on an industrial scale that they [manufacturers] are all starting to get now. Before, maybe they were willing to turn a blind eye until they realized their own products were being counterfeited and they had absolutely no way to trace an original product, and no control over the quality of the products that are out there. And once a product is out there, what do you do?”
Tracking supply chains
ADNAS was founded in 2005 with a mission to create DNA marks from botanical sources. Among other applications, these customizable DNA marks provide a way to identify a particular batch of textiles along the supply chain, starting at the raw material stage, right up to the finished product.
DNA is a biological method of storing information, and an incredibly efficient one at that. The information storage capacity in one gram of DNA (a small puddle of clear liquid with weight equal to a paper clip) is around 470 billion gigabytes of data.
Computers use binary code (ones and zeros in patterns) to store data. DNA uses ternary code, which has four parts: the proteins A, C, G and T. Ternary code offers exponentially increased combination options, so the storage capacity is exponentially increased as well.
Making custom DNA markers
The process for creating a mark tied to a specific shipment starts with extracting the DNA from a donor botanical source, such as a tree. The DNA is purified until it is in clear liquid form. “We can actually see what the code looks like under our analytical systems, and then we are able to slice and dice it and reassemble it,” says Wan.
Imagine the genome as the Sunday New York Times. Pieces are cut out—a sentence here, a letter there—and reassembled to create an entirely new sequence. New layers of complexity and protection are then applied to create a mark that cannot be broken, reproduced or even guessed with powerful computation. After a sample is filed in the master clone bank library, the customized mark can be added to a textile product. This is SigNature® T, the core of ADNAS’ textile supply chain business.
“Creating a specific mark for a specific need allows you to trace that mark from the inception of when we apply it to a finished good. So that means anyone within the supply chain could potentially authenticate an originally marked DNA product,” says Wan.
Applying the mark
The mark can be applied to any textile. Cotton is a common recipient, in which case the mark is sent as a liquid to be applied at the cotton gin. The taggant is added to a spray moisture treatment that is a required part of the process, so the application of the mark doesn’t require much in the way of extra work.
The bale is then taken to a spinner where it is carded and roved and converted. The fibers are blended and the mark is distributed evenly throughout the bale, so in the end the application has a negligible impact on the processing the cotton goes through.
“The end result is that every millimeter of the raw cotton fiber is marked,” says Mitchell Miller, director of communications at ADNAS. “It is uniformly there in whatever piece of textile you are examining. You don’t have to go find it somewhere.”
The mark can also be incorporated into a finishing treatment, such as an antimicrobial treatment for cotton or a finishing treatment for wool.
A manufacturer can choose to test a textile at any point along the supply chain by shipping a sample of the textile to the ADNAS labs in Stony Brook, N.Y. There is also a lab in Yorkshire, with plans to establish labs in Asia in coming months.
The DNA test is based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification, which is, in essence, a molecular photocopier. A sample is placed in the PCR machine, and the machine will try to make multiple copies of the marker. The cycles increase the mark exponentially. “If it is there, you will see if very clearly,” says Wan. “If it’s not there, you will see that as well.”
Using another test, capillary electrophoresis analysis (CE), ADNAS can identify to whom a particular DNA was assigned—it could be a specific customer or a specific product. “This two-pronged analytical approach is what the FBI and every other forensic lab uses,” says Wan.
The mark only shows up on the textiles in “parts per billion or parts per trillion,” so the information density of DNA comes heavily into play when identifying a specific tag created uniquely for a single shipment.
Of course, all of this is only meaningful if the mark survives the harsh treatment textiles are subjected to during processing. In testing, marks have consistently survived all of the manufacturing processes and then, as a finished good, 30 launderings and five to 10 dry cleanings.
Global supply chains
In July, ADNAS signed an agreement with Wakefield Inspection Services (WIS) to collaborate on supply chain traceability. WIS currently operates in more than 60 countries and is a leader in quality assessments and inspections. This move should provide a cost-effective solution allowing manufacturers to know without a doubt what is happening in their supply chains worldwide.