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Monday, February 15, 2016

Using DNA To Fight Fabric Fraud

California Pima Cotton
(This post originally appeared on Forbes 2/13/16)

The most desirable cotton is distinguished by having extra-long staple fibers (Egyptian, Pima) and such cotton commands a price premium. But as the cotton moves around the world, and through the fabric value chain, there is the potential for it to be diluted with or fraudulently replaced with lower price, lower quality materials. Clothing manufacturers like to make quality-related or sourcing claims, but the closer an item gets to the retail shelf, the more difficult it is to certify that the garment is really made from the type of cotton they intended. A company based on Long Island called Applied DNA Sciences (NASDAQ: APDN) has developed ways to identify what is real and what is not in this market. They can verify cotton items by identifying the native cotton species via DNA testing. Their methods can tag and test cotton textiles and finished goods using DNA technology to provide a means for traceability to the source were the cotton was grown and harvested. They employ sophisticated DNA testing of the type typically used in human forensics – the kind of thing you might see on an episode of CSI.

Scanning Electron Micrograph of Cotton Fibers (Wikipedia)

How does this work? Each cotton fiber was originally a living plant cell, and so it had the full compliment of cotton genes. By the time the cotton boll has matured, the cells are no longer viable and the DNA begins to degrade, something that continues during the many steps of ginning, spinning, weaving, dying etc. Still, enough DNA fragments remain to allow ADNAS to detect important elements of its genetic signature. They can already tell the difference between something like the premium Pima varieties and common upland cotton also known as fiberTyping Recently ADNAS has partnered with the Agricultural Research Service Genetics Unit of the US Department of Agriculture to genetically verify multiple types of individual cotton cultivars, and assist the cotton industry in protecting quality, traceability and economic investments. The USDA scientists have an extensive collection of cotton germplasm from around the world. Like many crops, the cotton has to be adapted to the growing conditions in each region. That means that cotton grown in India, China, Spain, Egypt or Uzbekistan may have unique and detectable differences in their DNA. In the near future a clothing company may be able to make label claims about cotton quality and origins no matter how convoluted the path has been from the farm to the store. In addition to quality issues, responsible clothing manufacturers want to be able to avoid sourcing their cotton from parts of the world where undesirable practices like forced child labor are known to happen. This will also protect the farmers who grow the high quality product. There are many other logical applications of this sort of technology such as olive oil, premium wine or the dietary supplement industry.

Applied DNA Sciences has an additional system that it calls “SigNature-T” which can be used to intentionally “tag” cotton or other commodities for aspects of how they were produced - things that go beyond anything specific to the plant’s own genetics. For instance an on-the-ground certifier could inspect a crop to document the fact that it was grown with sustainable farming practices like no-till and cover cropping. ADNAS has identified certain unique, botanically-derived, DNA tags which they can produce, and then apply in tiny amounts to the cotton at a step like ginning. Later, that DNA signature can be detected to say, “yes, this cotton was produced with x,y or z desirable methods” because those specific DNA tags can only be there if the certifier allowed it. The same thing could be done in many crops to verify a variety of claims.

USDA-ARS Shot Of No-Till Cotton

Cotton has been a logical place for ADNAS to begin because it represents literally hundreds of millions of tons of product from around the world, and they have the capacity to do the tracking for that kind of volume. But all plant-based products carry with them distinctive “stories” written in their own DNA or which could be added as micro amounts of DNA tags. Through the incredible advances in the field of molecular biology, those stories can now be used to encourage and reward “integrity” in the system.

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