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What's in my food?

DNA tests for my meal.

Freely translated from “Des Tests ADN pour mon assiette
by Julie Conti, originally published on “Le Temps” Wednesday April 15, 2015
What is in my food?
Two years after the horse meat scandal, and after a Dutch retailer was condemned to jail for having sold horse meat in place of beef, consumers still have a few possibilities to authenticate what they are eating. It is difficult to verify that there is no GMO in our food or that our beef burger hasn’t been mixed with pork meat. Even though new technologies like DNAbarcoding can give precise answers and their costs are decreasing, their technical requirements are too ambitious for the general public. This explains the the race to bring to market new food tests which are precise, rapid and cost effective. Gianpaolo Rando, lecturer in molecular biology at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) has developed one of these tests inside a spin-off of the University of Geneva: SwissDeCode. The researcher is developing strips that are loaded with inks that change color in presence of a specific DNA. The idea is to have a single strip prepared to test for hundreds of different ingredients and a smartphone will interpret the results.
The final product is similar to a pregnancy test

The final product is similar to a pregnancy test. With an absorbing pad in contact with the food and an area on the strip to report the results. “The food [DNA] enters in contact with probes which activate a chemical circuit” explains Gianpaolo Rando. It works like a puzzle with each probe reporting the presence of DNA specific for meats, plants or bacteria. When the DNA bridges the gap, an identifying color will appear on the corresponding detector. Today, the prototype on pork DNA gives an answer in twenty minutes, but the researcher wants to shorten the response time to one minute. The university initiated the patent process which will lead to more funding and more tests.

This technology can identify any organism that contains DNA. The test will allow one to determine the presence of different meats, or allergenic foods like shell fish, berries or nuts. A possible companion for consumers with allergies that today perceive a dinner at the restaurant as a threat. But what would happen if — for instance — a peanut fragment will be only present on a side of the prepared dish? “The DNA [from broken cells] is extremely contaminant — explains Gianpaolo Rando. It spreads all over the food. But to be safer, the consumer could sample the same test on multiple spots all over the dish”.

The results will appear as a grid made of multiple points. To increase the security, the same detector will be present in different points on the grid. For instance, the detector for beef meat will be present on the top left, on the middle and at the bottom of the window. By scanning the grid with her smartphone, the consumer would authenticate her food. It will be also possible to determine the presence of food-borne pathogens, and even GMOs, gluten or products of animal origin [for vegans].

Gianpaolo Rando will need one or two years to finish his work and a year more for certifications. “For allergic patients, the consequences of a false negative could be dramatic. We will need to assure perfection on 100% of our tests”. He would also love to couple his tests with an App that will empower consumers to alert frauds in real time.
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