You steal — you’re marked! Smearing DNA on your valuable items

By Anna Sandiford 11/05/2010

Don’t want burglars stealing your gear?  Smear it with synthetic DNA and help reduce the burglary rate by more than 50%!  A recent product launch in New Zealand is something called SelectaDNA, which is a synthetic DNA material that can be put onto items you don’t want people to steal and then advertising the fact that you’ve smeared your most precious belongings with it.

The product being marketed seems to combine several anti-theft techniques into one:

  • Microdots onto which are printed unique identifying numbers (and have been used in the past by James Bond and also in real life for storage of secret or sensitive information).  Microdots have been used by the automobile industry for some time now, with the microdots being printed with vehicle details so that if a car is stolen and broken down for parts, microdots on the parts have details on them that can be used to link back to the original vehicle, thus assisting with determining the origin of a given part and confirming if that part was stolen;
  • A SmartWater-type product that glows under UV light and is detectable for weeks or months;
  • A synthetic DNA ‘marker’ in each kit. Each sample kit contains a different DNA marker and is therefore unique to that particular kit;
  • Stickers and other labeling material to announce to the world that items that could be stolen are marked with this material. This is obviously a critical part of the whole kit because if burglars don’t know about it then it won’t put them off burgling your house or stealing your car.

A trial was recently completed in Manurewa, which saw a 61% reduction in burglariesResidents in Martinborough who formed what has been termed a vigilante-type group last year because they were sick of burglaries perhaps should be told about this product, in the hope that they can use a passive method of reducing crime, rather than putting themselves into court.

From a scientific point of view, I’d be interested to know how the synthetic DNA is manufactured, how different each DNA signature is from the rest and how the data is being stored, retrieved and interpreted by the manufacturer. DNA is an extremely powerful evidence type and we all know the powerful impact it has on people’s perceptions of solving crimes. I am interested in the drying time of the product (it is water-based), particularly of the hydrospray – can Police or security services accidentally contaminate things or people around them if they are sprayed or come into contact with surfaces or items? What is the transfer risk once the product has been used to mark an item? Can you transfer the batch number to another person if you sell your marked PS2 on TradeMe?

Although I’m thinking like a forensic scientist, I haven’t tried this product yet but I think I will. If I like it, I know what everyone will be getting for Christmas this year…

0 Responses to “You steal — you’re marked! Smearing DNA on your valuable items”

  • I’ve been very interested in these products for a while now. If they do contain DNA at all, I’m curious to know what MAF has to say about it!

    It is my understanding that ‘synthetic’ DNA usually requires transfers, permits, payments, physical containment facilities etc. Yet these guys can go out and blast synthetic DNA on everything from hand held electronics to electric toothbrushes?

    I have a long held view that our laws lead to extreme amounts of bureaucracy and costs for life science businesses. For example, importation of most widely used biochemical kits from Australia that typically cost $350 – $500 end up costing over $1000 due to a $500 MAF handling and clearance fee.

    One rule for all l I say, or change the law.

    I look forward to the more technical details of these products such as the length of sequences and whether they BLAST the sequences against virus databases etc.

  • Although I realised that there would be issues in terms of how to deal with this type of DNA evidence once it had got onto items and therefore what the criminal justice system might do with it, I hadn’t really applied my mind to the whys and wherefores of just getting it into the country but now that you point it out, I guess there must be all kinds of issues that the company has had to address (unless the synthetic DNA is made here?) and now this synthetic material is being scattered about – the redistribution must be enormous, just based on legitimate physical movement of items. I don’t mean off the items concerned (but I would be interested to know how well the solution ‘sticks’ to various surfaces, particularly non-porous). How often do the microdots fall off surfaces?

    I also agree about the cost for being able to obtain and use bioscience equipment that has to be brought in from overseas. I have also had a problem bringing forensic samples into the country for analysis – I have to pay handling fees and storage fees that all add to the base cost of analysis. This puts up the cost to the customer – it’s bad enough offering an unusual service from this remote part of the world but I do sometimes wonder whether we are hindering ourselves with the bureaucracy involved. I’m sure there must be an easier way to ensure we maintain our biosecurity measures without hindering economic development. Mind you, I had massive problems trying to get a sample into Australia for analysis – thank goodness we can now get forensic DNA samples analysed at an independent NZ lab!