Like many private businesses, the Pentagon is struggling to keep counterfeit electronic parts from ending up in its equipment. “The global supply chain has resulted in significant efficiencies, but it has also created vulnerabilities to counterfeiters,” explains Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill via e-mail. “Counterfeit microcircuits put at risk weapon systems and personnel safety.”
To combat this threat, the U.S. military has started implementing a new tactic: It’s requiring suppliers to mark microcircuits—which are used in everything from aircraft to medical equipment—with a patented plant-based DNA, called SigNature DNA. Manufactured by Applied DNA Sciences in Stony Brook, N.Y., these forensic markers are invisible to the naked eye but show up under UV light. Each supplier also gets its own highly customized sequence (or sequences), which the military verifies in a laboratory.
The Pentagon began the new anti-counterfeiting strategy last November after an 18-month battery of tests, which confirmed that SigNature DNA cannot be replicated or transferred onto different objects. So far, the Pentagon has contracted with 18 suppliers to provide microcircuits marked with custom SigNature DNA, and it’s reimbursing them for the extra costs due to the verification markers.
According to Applied DNA’s chief executive, James Hayward, SigNature DNA is made by extracting the genome of a plant, altering it slightly so it cannot be mistaken for anything that appears in nature, then doing “a little bit of chemistry so that the mark is suitable for whatever environment we’re going to put it in.” He explains: “We have the capacity, given the complexity of DNA, to make an infinite variety of markers, and we also have the capacity to take any single marker and manufacture that in infinite quantity.”
In some ways, the military is late to the game. Applied DNA’s genetic markers have been around since 2008 and are used in counterfeit prevention for such goods as wines and high-end apparel. Banks in Europe also employ SigNature DNA to fight crime, typically by mixing the product into the ink bombs used to protect cash-carrying boxes. As of June, the markers had been used to support 57 convictions in the U.K., according to Hayward. “In one case, police tracked down a criminal and found loads of money under the floorboards of his home,” he says. “Because the money was marked with SigNature DNA, they were able to track it back to about 23 different bank robberies and convicted the man for all of them.”
As I wrote earlier this year, SigNature is also the key ingredient in DNA Fog, a new fog-based security system that marks intruders with the difficult-to-remove forensic material, linking them unequivocally to the scene of the crime. ”Police often have a very good idea who the criminals are but they just cannot prove it,” says Hayward. In this case, he explains, “it’s not the DNA a suspect leaves behind [that is used in court], but rather the DNA we use to mark the suspect.”