New uses for bar codes

Here’s a creepy piece of news to ponder as we launch into the new year with dreams of watching what we eat …

The article reports a study by high school students, who gathered about 150 DNA samples from foods and objects in New York as part of a science project with Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History. After gathering samples from a variety of sources, including supermarkets and fresh markets, “They sent the samples to the natural history museum, which tapped into a databank of DNA bar codes that was pioneered by Canadian scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario.”

A high percentage of the foods they collected as samples weren’t what was listed on the label. “That included a specialty sheep’s milk cheese that was actually made from cow’s milk, venison dog treats made of beef, and sturgeon caviar that was really Mississippi paddlefish.” In other words, cheap stuff substituted for expensive stuff. Not only are consumers being ripped off, but those trying to eat carefully for health reasons, like allergies, can’t rely on the package label.

If that isn’t enough food for thought, the article goes on to say, “The Consortium for the Bar Code of Life project involves identifying a particular DNA sequence in marine and animal life that is unique to the species. . . . Bob Hanner, a biologist at Guelph who led the work on bar coding, said [the project] shows the value of a technology that can be used to identify illicit goods at borders . . . he can soon see a time when people will be able to use tabletop devices at border crossings, schools and government departments to quickly identify a plant or animal.”

In other words, if something has the wrong DNA, they can be scanned at stopped at the border or anyplace else.

Interesting. The conspiracy theorist in me in all a-quiver. After all, people have DNA, too. Now we can really know whom we let pass through checkpoints.

The complete study will be covered in the January edition of BioScience magazine.


  1. darchole says:

    Like with any new kind of technology or advance in science not everything has been worked with with the ‘DNA barcode’. Yes you can get a part of the DNA (sequence) that identifies a particular species…most of the time…in a lab that is very careful about scientific protocol and is equipped to do the sequencing…and if the sample was collected correctly in the first place (no cross-contamination)…and as long as you already know about that species and have a barcode already identified for it.
    Being able to identify items at the border in quick, cheap way? Not going to happen anytime soon, and I’m not sure I’d trust the results either.
    As far as the particular part of the DNA they’re using as the ‘Barcode’ you wouldn’t be able to identify specific people or others things with it. Just a species, if you’re lucky.
    (I do work in research and have a degree in Biology, and DNA barcoding it the hot new topic, so I do know something about it.)

  2. admin says:

    I can well believe that there are many miles to go before this kind of technology is reliable–and I can also believe the hot new topic status.

    I don’t pretend to any kind of scientific expertise, but I find this kind of story absolutely fascinating.

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