Data analytics startup Phylagen is creating a microbial database that will function much like a barcode for products, potentially certifying where they are made.

Microbes gather on medicine, clothing and every other surface on Earth imaginable, giving products unique genetic markers or fingerprints that serve to offer clues about where a product came from or where it has been. As such, scientists from California-based Phylagen are examining the DNA of the microorganisms in the dust particles gathered from a variety of locations and are applying artificial intelligence to read and classify the unique fingerprints of the microbes that differ from location to location.

“It is the collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa that are present in any environment,” said Jessica Green, microbial systems expert and co-founder of Phylagen.

Already, Phylagen has found a real-world application for the database in the clothing industry, particularly to ensure that unauthorized subcontracting with facilities tied to reports of labor abuses are detectable. To ensure that the apparel industry isn’t outsourcing the manufacturing of products to facilities with labor abuse violations, Phylagen has been digitizing the genome of various regions throughout 40 different countries, taking dust samples from hundreds of factories in those countries with the aim of developing a database so that the microbes on each item of clothing can be traced to ensure that they have not passed through unauthorized factories.

“We sample the DNA of the products, and then, we use machine learning algorithms to map what is on the product with the factory, and can therefore verify for brands that their goods are made by their trusted suppliers in factories where you have good labor conditions, good environmental conditions versus unauthorized facilities which can be really detrimental,” Green said.

Other potential applications for a database of microbial DNA could include predicting disease outbreaks or assisting law enforcement by tracking the movements of ships because shipping logs can be manipulated. According to Green, counterfeit pharmaceuticals might also be traceable as the database expands.

“We can sequence the DNA of seized counterfeit pills, cluster together pills that have similar microbial signatures and then use that to help both pharmaceutical companies and the government, the U.S. government, gain some intelligence about how many different sources of these manufacturing facilities are there,” Green said.

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