Barcoded microbial system for high-resolution object provenance

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Science  05 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6495, pp. 1135-1140
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba5584

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DNA barcodes in small packages

Under adverse environmental conditions, some microorganisms form spores that provide robust protection for genetic material. Qian et al. developed a system in which DNA barcodes are encapsulated inside nongerminating microbial spores and can be dispersed on objects or in the environment (see the Perspective by Nivala). These barcoded spores provide a durable, specific marker that can be read out quickly with simple equipment. When applied to soil, the spores can be transferred to and from objects around them, enabling tracking at meter-scale resolution. On plant leaves, the spores are not readily transferred, and the authors demonstrate a potential use for tracking agricultural products.

Science, this issue p. 1135; see also p. 1058


Determining where an object has been is a fundamental challenge for human health, commerce, and food safety. Location-specific microbes in principle offer a cheap and sensitive way to determine object provenance. We created a synthetic, scalable microbial spore system that identifies object provenance in under 1 hour at meter-scale resolution and near single-spore sensitivity and can be safely introduced into and recovered from the environment. This system solves the key challenges in object provenance: persistence in the environment, scalability, rapid and facile decoding, and biocontainment. Our system is compatible with SHERLOCK, a Cas13a RNA-guided nucleic acid detection assay, facilitating its implementation in a wide range of applications.

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