The U.S. Army, after learning that counterfeit equipment entered the supply chain, is developing a method for identifying counterfeit equipment by marking authentic equipment with DNA tags.
A few years ago, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report stating counterfeit components were frequently found in the supply chain, usually electronics.
In response, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) funded a project researching the use of DNA tags to track components, a program conducted by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center. DNA was chosen for its stability; it’s robust and doesn’t degrade easily in different temperatures.
DNA tagging usually requires a lab and/or highly trained technicians and specialized equipment to analyze samples, resulting in longer-than-ideal wait times. Checking the tag in the field was cumbersome at best so Center biologists developed a modified approach – a field assay for identification.
“Our approach uses a DNA tag formulated so it’s easy to use, requiring little instrumentation or training to verify,” Matthew Lux, Ph.D., CCDC Chemical Biological Center researcher said. “You swab it, put it in a bag and, in just minutes, a pattern emerges on the ticket. If the pattern matches, you know it’s authentic.”
CCDC Chemical Biological Center’s collaborators, Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS), have commercial products for DNA tagging but their services require a lab. This version uses DNA as a tag without using an amplification step, making it unique. CCDC Chemical Biological Center and ADNAS are operating under a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA).
“So what we’ve done is transition the proof of concept, prototype-level work to ADNAS for our approach so they can commercialize it,” Lux said. “It does work, but one downside is the amount of DNA they have to put into the tag is too high for some applications, so we’re hoping to obtain future funding to solve that problem. We want to work on improving the system so less DNA is required for the tags.”
Beyond that, the team is also working to make the DNA tag “unhackable.”
“Someone could swab our barcode, sequence it, and in theory, figure out what the tag is and put it on their counterfeit equipment,” Kim Berk, Center biologist said.
The science behind the DNA tags involves a process called toeholds.
Basically, two pieces of DNA are attached, along with a fluorophore bond and a quencher, both of which can emit light.
When the pieces remain attached, they don’t light up, but when the two strands are broken apart, they will light up.
Lux said the technology could also be transitioned to groups outside the military: the intelligence community, law enforcement and maybe the U.S. Treasury. These options are being explored by CCDC Chemical Biological Center and ADNAS.