Normally, DNA barcoding food to determine its makeup is a time-consuming process that can demand several days for a response. However, teams of scientists from the Italian Institute of Technology IIT, Genoa, and from the University of Milano-Bicocca (M. Labra), led by IIT’s Pier Paolo Pompa have developed a simplified version of the test called NanoTracer, which they announced in the journal Angewandte Chemie in June.
By breaking long barcodes up into shorter sections that still allow species to be numerically identified, the NanoTracer technology cuts through much of the information involved in a traditional DNA barcoding, while remaining capable of identifying DNA that’s been altered by cooking. Using a polymerase chain reaction process, the NanoTracer offers a testing chemical that shows a clear color change in order to indicate a DNA sequence match. And rather than two days, the NanoTracer takes only two to three hours.
Nicola Temple, co-author of Sorting the Beef from the Bull: The Science of Food Fraud Forensics, however, warns that in shortening the DNA barcoding process, the NanoTracer is also shortening the amount of information it can make available.
“The strength of DNA barcoding is that it can be used to identify unknown species by comparing the sequence of the unknown species to a database of known sequences,” Temple explains. “From what I understand of the NanoTracer DNA scanning technology, it can only confirm whether a species is what it says it is. While this is useful as a quick fraud check, there are already existing protein-based assays that are capable of doing this rapidly and also require very little equipment or expertise. I’m also unclear whether the NanoTracer DNA scanning technology would work in mixtures, such as minced meat. If someone wanted to know whether some lean ground beef was truly beef, this technology could give a positive result even if pork, horse or other species were present.”
About Jesse Staniforth
Jesse Staniforth is a Montreal-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor covering a variety of different beats. He reports regularly on Indigenous issues for The Nation magazine, serving the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, as well on Information Security issues for SC Magazine. His stories have appeared in a wide variety of other publications, from the Toronto Star and Metro News through AskMen.com and University Affairs. After editing several thousands of pages' worth of food preparation training materials for a hospitality industry group, he grew fascinated with the subject of food safety. Reach him at email@example.com.