Policy: Environment & Energy

Plant DNA markers help the Pentagon detect counterfeit electronics in the military supply chain

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Counterfeit electronics are a huge problem for the U.S. military, and a defense contractor says DNA stripped from plants could help solve it.

Flawed and fraudulent parts have been increasingly finding their way into the Pentagon's supply chain over the past few years. A two-year study done for the Senate Armed Services Committee last year found at least 1 million counterfeit parts in circulation, creating vulnerabilities that are difficult to detect and expensive to fix.

But Applied DNA Sciences, of Stony Brook, N.Y., believes it's found a way for U.S. troops to quickly identify and avoid using fraudulent parts. It proposes using plant DNA to tag genuine manufactured parts, allowing firms and military officials to track specific parts moving through the supply chain and to more quickly identify counterfeits.

Here’s how it works: The company takes plant DNA from a botanical source — it could be grass, a flower or a vegetable — and breaks the DNA into segments. These segments are rearranged to create a unique DNA marker that doesn’t resemble anything in the natural world. The DNA is then adhered to a microchip or some other part that needs tracking.

To verify the authenticity of a part, officials can swab the DNA and confirm it using forensic analysis similar to that used in criminal investigations.

DNA is “a very strong and robust molecule,” and engineered DNA is an “uncopiable marker,” said Janice Meraglia, Applied DNA's vice president for military and government programs.

There's little doubt the military's problem with counterfeit parts is growing. The Senate Armed Services Committee investigation of the supply chain found 1,800 cases involving counterfeit electronics — leading investigators to believe there are more than 1 million phony parts now circulating in military stores.

When investigators tracked the trail of counterfeit parts, they found that the problem stems largely from Chinese manufacturers. Of the 1,800 suspected cases, the committee tracked 100 of them through the supply chain, and concluded that more than 70 percent of the bogus parts were coming from China.

The issue of sham military hardware has even infiltrated popular culture. In 2010, as the committee was conducting its investigation, acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen published the book Freedom, which included a character who sells hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of defective truck parts to firms in the military supply chain. Even President Obama got into the act, reportedly obtaining the book as summer reading that year.

Since the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report last year, Congress has moved to mitigate the problem of counterfeit parts in its annual defense authorization act.

The Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency now requires that certain types of electronic microcircuits be marked by plant DNA, which only Applied DNA Sciences can provide. This followed 18 months of research and development by DLA and the company to ensure that the technology worked.

Though it has the stamp of approval from the DLA, botanical DNA marks don’t come cheap. To create a unique mark for a manufacturer, Applied DNA Sciences charges $35,000.

Also, plant DNA markers don’t solve all of the problem associated with counterfeit supplies. Counterfeit parts already in the supply chain can't be easily identified, and so remain undetected.

“It’s a preventative measure, it’s a very proactive step” that firms can take to ensure they are getting what they were promised, Meraglia said.

So far, Applied DNA Sciences’ technology is being used by more than 21 companies through the DLA program, including industry manufacturers.

Counterfeit electronics are a huge problem for the U.S. military, and a defense contractor says DNA stripped from plants could help solve it.

Flawed and fraudulent parts have been increasingly finding their way into the Pentagon's supply chain over the past few years. A two-year study done for the Senate Armed Services Committee last year found at least 1 million counterfeit parts in circulation, creating vulnerabilities that are difficult to detect and expensive to fix.

But Applied DNA Sciences, of Stony Brook, N.Y., believes it's found a way for U.S. troops to quickly identify and avoid using fraudulent parts. It proposes using plant DNA to tag genuine manufactured parts, allowing firms and military officials to track specific parts moving through the supply chain and to more quickly identify counterfeits.

Here’s how it works: The company takes plant DNA from a botanical source — it could be grass, a flower or a vegetable — and breaks the DNA into segments. These segments are rearranged to create a unique DNA marker that doesn’t resemble anything in the natural world. The DNA is then adhered to a microchip or some other part that needs tracking.

To verify the authenticity of a part, officials can swab the DNA and confirm it using forensic analysis similar to that used in criminal investigations.

DNA is “a very strong and robust molecule,” and engineered DNA is an “uncopiable marker,” said Janice Meraglia, Applied DNA's vice president for military and government programs.

There's little doubt the military's problem with counterfeit parts is growing. The Senate Armed Services Committee investigation of the supply chain found 1,800 cases involving counterfeit electronics — leading investigators to believe there are more than 1 million phony parts now circulating in military stores.

When investigators tracked the trail of counterfeit parts, they found that the problem stems largely from Chinese manufacturers. Of the 1,800 suspected cases, the committee tracked 100 of them through the supply chain, and concluded that more than 70 percent of the bogus parts were coming from China.

The issue of sham military hardware has even infiltrated popular culture. In 2010, as the committee was conducting its investigation, acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen published the book Freedom, which included a character who sells hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of defective truck parts to firms in the military supply chain. Even President Obama got into the act, reportedly obtaining the book as summer reading that year.

Since the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report last year, Congress has moved to mitigate the problem of counterfeit parts in its annual defense authorization act.

The Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency now requires that certain types of electronic microcircuits be marked by plant DNA, which only Applied DNA Sciences can provide. This followed 18 months of research and development by DLA and the company to ensure that the technology worked.

Though it has the stamp of approval from the DLA, botanical DNA marks don’t come cheap. To create a unique mark for a manufacturer, Applied DNA Sciences charges $35,000.

Also, plant DNA markers don’t solve all of the problem associated with counterfeit supplies. Counterfeit parts already in the supply chain can't be easily identified, and so remain undetected.

“It’s a preventative measure, it’s a very proactive step” that firms can take to ensure they are getting what they were promised, Meraglia said.

So far, Applied DNA Sciences’ technology is being used by more than 21 companies through the DLA program, including industry manufacturers.

Counterfeit electronics are a huge problem for the U.S. military, and a defense contractor says DNA stripped from plants could help solve it.

Flawed and fraudulent parts have been increasingly finding their way into the Pentagon's supply chain over the past few years. A two-year study done for the Senate Armed Services Committee last year found at least 1 million counterfeit parts in circulation, creating vulnerabilities that are difficult to detect and expensive to fix.

But Applied DNA Sciences, of Stony Brook, N.Y., believes it's found a way for U.S. troops to quickly identify and avoid using fraudulent parts. It proposes using plant DNA to tag genuine manufactured parts, allowing firms and military officials to track specific parts moving through the supply chain and to more quickly identify counterfeits.

Here’s how it works: The company takes plant DNA from a botanical source — it could be grass, a flower or a vegetable — and breaks the DNA into segments. These segments are rearranged to create a unique DNA marker that doesn’t resemble anything in the natural world. The DNA is then adhered to a microchip or some other part that needs tracking.

To verify the authenticity of a part, officials can swab the DNA and confirm it using forensic analysis similar to that used in criminal investigations.

DNA is “a very strong and robust molecule,” and engineered DNA is an “uncopiable marker,” said Janice Meraglia, Applied DNA's vice president for military and government programs.

There's little doubt the military's problem with counterfeit parts is growing. The Senate Armed Services Committee investigation of the supply chain found 1,800 cases involving counterfeit electronics — leading investigators to believe there are more than 1 million phony parts now circulating in military stores.

When investigators tracked the trail of counterfeit parts, they found that the problem stems largely from Chinese manufacturers. Of the 1,800 suspected cases, the committee tracked 100 of them through the supply chain, and concluded that more than 70 percent of the bogus parts were coming from China.

The issue of sham military hardware has even infiltrated popular culture. In 2010, as the committee was conducting its investigation, acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen published the book Freedom, which included a character who sells hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of defective truck parts to firms in the military supply chain. Even President Obama got into the act, reportedly obtaining the book as summer reading that year.

Since the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report last year, Congress has moved to mitigate the problem of counterfeit parts in its annual defense authorization act.

The Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency now requires that certain types of electronic microcircuits be marked by plant DNA, which only Applied DNA Sciences can provide. This followed 18 months of research and development by DLA and the company to ensure that the technology worked.

Though it has the stamp of approval from the DLA, botanical DNA marks don’t come cheap. To create a unique mark for a manufacturer, Applied DNA Sciences charges $35,000.

Also, plant DNA markers don’t solve all of the problem associated with counterfeit supplies. Counterfeit parts already in the supply chain can't be easily identified, and so remain undetected.

“It’s a preventative measure, it’s a very proactive step” that firms can take to ensure they are getting what they were promised, Meraglia said.

So far, Applied DNA Sciences’ technology is being used by more than 21 companies through the DLA program, including industry manufacturers.

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