Scientists Reprogram Plant DNA to Identify Counterfeit Military Parts

Unique gene sequences can be embedded on microchips, cash, and clothing.

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A new technology that uses plant genes to track even the most miniscule computer parts is being considered to make sure sophisticated U.S. military equipment such as bomb guidance kits, airplane electronics and radars aren't being made with counterfeit components.

By reprogramming plants' genetic material, Stony Brook, N.Y.-based Applied DNA Sciences can create a tiny marker that can be embedded on computer chips, mixed in with the ink used to print cash, or woven into clothing.

The military can then use a device similar to a barcode scanner to instantly "read back" that DNA, verifying the parts are authentic.

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"We can make up an infinite number of individual, unique markers," says James Hayward, CEO of the company.

Experts have warned that the electrical components inside some of the most sophisticated military computers are faulty and fraudulent, prompting Congress to pass a law in late 2011 requiring military contractors to guarantee the parts they use in military systems.

"These counterfeit parts endanger our troops, harm national security and cost taxpayers," Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin said at the time. "The flood of counterfeit parts must stop."

The new tracking technology uses plant DNA because plants thrive in sunlight, whereas animals' DNA can break down from ultraviolet rays. "I wear a hat in the summertime, plants don't," Hayward adds.

Last year, the U.S. military reported more than 1,300 counterfeit parts in their weapons—more than four times the 2009 number—to IHS iSuppli, a company that monitors the industry.

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Hayward says there are multiple ways counterfeit chips make their way into military supply chains. Because the technology is constantly evolving, production numbers are generally very low for certain chips, which forces the military and other companies to buy from a wide variety of suppliers. Parts are removed from recycled cell phones, computers, and electronics and relabeled as brand new—by the time a computer fails, it can be impossible to determine which component caused the crash, Hayward says.

It's not just microchips that can be verified—DNA signatures are already being used on certain bank notes in the United Kingdom. The genetic material can also be mixed into cotton, tacked onto medical devices, and imprinted in prescription labels, so upscale suits, purses, medicines, and more could be verified with the technology.

"In essence, the DNA cannot be removed," Hayward says. In the future, the company plans to introduce an iPhone app that will be able to read back the DNA markers. "We haven't found anything we can't mark."

Since Congress passed the bill requiring authentication of all military parts, Hayward says "the phone has been ringing off the hook" with calls from defense contractors. That's because the only other way of testing microchips is to break them apart—which is costly and time consuming.

"Traditionally, it's been extraordinarily difficult to determine if a microchip is faulty," Hayward says. "You could do a destructive analysis on one or two sacrificial chips, but that only reveals information about the chips you destroy."