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Using Genetics to Fight Product Piracy

A young bio-technology company in Erlangen, Germany, has developed a new method of identifying brand-name articles. They hope their genetics-based technology will help stop product piracy.


With the new technology even Harry Potter may be spared from being reproduced illegally in future

From the fake Rolex to the boot-leg copy of Hollywood’s latest film, nearly every product with a good reputation is counterfeited. And the imitation products are turning up everywhere. Customs officials discover them at the control counters in airports, police raid warehouses packed full with pirated computer software, and clothing markets are shut down for selling fake label designer goods.

Under national and international trade laws, the cheap product copies are illegal. Moreover, they damage the manufacturer of the original product by depriving the company of its profits and good image. In the worst case, the fake products can be so poorly manufactured that they endanger consumers, for example by using poisonous pigments in children’s toys.

As a result, each counterfeited article has to be confiscated and destroyed to keep it off the market. But that costs a lot of work and a lot of money. Plus, not all the pirated products are easy to identify before they enter the market.

A young company in Erlangen, in southern Germany, may have the solution, or at least part of the solution. A new genetics-based technology developed by the company’s research department could help to identify brand-name products and protect them against counterfeiters.

DNA security code

First the researchers from November AG create a code on the computer – a different one for each brand. The code is a sequence of components similar to those found in DNA, the genetic blueprint for all life forms. A robot assembles the components such as cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine, in exactly the sequence generated on the computer. The artificial DNA is created in fluid, and just a short piece is all that is required for a code strand.

The principle behind the security code is the same as in natural DNA. Once a single strand is formed, it is joined with a second strand in a twisted zipper-like fashion. No two DNA strands are alike, and although the number of DNA combinations in nature is limitless, there is only one possibility for a match.

Once the DNA security code has been created, scientists take one of the matched strands and place it on a security label on a cell phone, for instance. The other half of the match remains in its liquid form, and a special felt pen is soaked in the fluid. The special pen with the second half of the artificial DNA is sent to customs offices.

With the DNA pen, the customs officers can determine without question whether or not an article is the genuine product. By running the pen over the security label, the officers can see if the two codes match up. If the two pairs of code fit together like a key in the lock, the product was produced by the legitimate manufacturer. A mismatched pair indicates an imitation. A matched DNA pair lights up under laser light, making the verification process easier for customs officers.

New directions for genetics

Wolf M. Bertling from November AG in Erlangen is convinced his company’s technology is the way of the future in genetics. "This is one of the few cases of what we call gray bio-technology. Usually you’re dealing with green bio-technology, like with tomatoes, or red bio-technology – for blood, for humans. And I think we’ve opened up a door for further developments in this direction. Not many companies have looked into this area," Bertling says.

When the patented security system arrives on the market in October, the company expects it to do well. Gene technology will enable customs officials to fight product piracy more effectively. And manufacturers are interested in the system as a new weapon for protecting themselves against counterfeiters.