Thursday, January 19, 2012


With sophisticated electronic instruments available to day, detailing the features of any material on earth has become easy and reliable. It was not long ago that personal identification was being done on the basis of photographs but to day biometric measurements have become standard techniques for such tasks widely used world over. The fact that each living species has its own genetic sequence has enabled their identification in a cocktail using the well established DNA printing. This technology has now found a new use in the hands of regulators in detecting adulterants and contaminants in many foods. By compiling a master reference DNA finger prints of all species whether animal based or plant based or microorganism based, it is possible to day to compare the DNA sequence of a particular food material and find out what ingredients are present in it. Here is the fascinating story of DNA Barcode system evolved in Canada that is likely to revolutionize the safety monitoring protocols world over.  

"Scientists have discovered a range of new uses for a Canadian technology that can be used to peer into 30,000-year-old permafrost, detect phoney herbal medicines and catch invasive species before they sneak across borders. Researchers from around the world are fingerprinting most of the planet's species by taking samples of their DNA and cataloguing them in a comprehensive reference library.
The DNA creates a so-called barcode that can identify real ingredients in food, quickly analyze water quality and reveal how the environment has changed over millenia. Bob Hanner, a professor at the University of Guelph where the technique was developed, said barcoding gives governments, businesses and people a reliable way of knowing what they're eating, importing and buying.
We have a very powerful tool to identify species in processed products that you wouldn't normally be able to identify using traditional morphological techniques, Hanner said from Guelph, Ont., before heading to an international conference on barcoding in Australia starting Monday. It's a very exciting time. Researchers from dozens of institutions are steadily building the library of barcodes by taking short gene sequences from samples of birds, fish, mammals, insects and other life forms at herbaria, museums and other facilities.
They hope it will one day give them a master list of the world's species that can be used by corporate interests and government agencies for a growing number of applications. Since being developed at Guelph in 2003, the technique has been adopted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a regulatory tool and was used to identify mislabelled cheap fish being sold at American restaurants as more expensive species. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is using barcodes to collaborate with its U.S. counterparts to identify seafood, pest insects and pathogenic fungi. Environment Canada is also using it to measure species diversity in watersheds and identify materials they've confiscated, Hanner said. But Hanner says that as the library grows, so do the ways they can use barcoding.
Scientists in Malaysia who are contributing to the plant barcode library used it to reveal that a herbal medicine didn't contain the ingredient it promised would treat malaria and diabetes. Others found weeds in herbal teas".

Such efforts to establish reliable monitoring technology should not be left to any one country but must be based on collective efforts and cooperative endeavor. An agency like WHO or FAO must step in to take this program further for common benefit of all countries. Setting up of regional reference DNA libraries and networking them globally can be expected to bring down food poisoning episodes dramatically in coming years. Besides this will also help in settling trade disputes regarding food quality among the exporting and importing countries.


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