New DNA-Based Tagging System Could Replace Barcodes

University of Washington researchers teamed up with Microsoft to create the new system that could even revolutionize voting.
Chris Young
The photo credit line may appear like thisluchschen/iStock

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging technology is almost ubiquitous in shops worldwide. However, the item-securing technology does have its shortcomings: the tags can be easily damaged, can be inflexible for certain situations, and are cumbersome to apply in large quantities.

Now, new advances in DNA-based storage and computation has allowed a team of researchers to create a tagging system that is smaller and lighter than conventional methods used for shopping, such as scannable barcodes and QR codes

Impressively, this new technology, while meant for shopping, could have applications for securing voter's ballots in future elections, the researchers say.


A new molecular tagging system

The new DNA-based tagging method, dubbed Porcupine, was developed by researchers from the University of Washington and Microsoft. Their molecular tags can be programmed and read within seconds via a portable nanopore device.

In their new paper, the team details how they used dehydrated strands of synthetic DNA to take the place of printed barcodes or bulky plastic used for radio frequency identification tagging.

"Molecular tagging is not a new idea, but existing methods are still complicated and require access to a lab, which rules out many real-world scenarios," lead author Kathryn Doroschak, a UW doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, explained in a press release.

"We designed the first portable, end-to-end molecular tagging system that enables rapid, on-demand encoding and decoding at scale, and which is more accessible than existing molecular tagging methods," she continued.

Rather than relying on radio waves or printed lines, the Porcupine tagging method uses distinct DNA strands called molecular bits, also known as 'molbits', that makes the readout more user friendly.

Though DNA is notoriously expensive to read and write, the researchers behind Porcupine used prefabricated fragments of DNA to lower the cost.

Invisible to the naked eye

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the Porcupine system is that molbits are incredibly tiny, meaning they are invisible to the naked eye and are unlikely to be removed by shoplifters. Their size also makes them ideal for placing on flexible surfaces that wouldn't have been suited to conventional tagging methods.

"Unlike existing inventory control methods, DNA tags can't be detected by sight or touch. Practically speaking, this means they are difficult to tamper with," said senior author Jeff Nivala, a research scientist at the Allen School. "This makes them ideal for tracking high-value items and separating legitimate goods from forgeries. A system like Porcupine could also be used to track important documents. For example, you could envision molecular tagging being used to track voters' ballots and prevent tampering in future elections."

Perhaps, in the future, such a system could prevent the situation we are seeing in the 2020 U.S. election from happening again, as votes continue to be counted at a glacial pace, amidst loud accusations.


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