The type of forensic techniques that detectives have long deployed to solve crimes can now be used to identify the origin of manufactured goods in the supply chain.
Phylagen is a San Francisco-based data analytics company that has developed a platform for tracing goods and materials back to the farm, warehouse or factory. The tool draws on microbiomes, unique types of naturally occurring microbes found all over the world. The genetic information encoded in those microbes create the equivalent of a biological fingerprint.
The technology can be applied to a wide variety of products, including food, textiles and, perhaps most importantly, counterfeit goods. Data scientists today can examine, say, the dust on an athletic shoe, and determine with confidence the precise factory where it was manufactured. Says Phylagen co-founder and chief executive officer Jessica Green: “The environmental microbiome is the largest untapped dataset on the planet.”
Prior to founding Phylagen, Green was a professor at the University of Oregon, where she researched both genetic mapping and microbiome science. Putting those two disciplines together, her lab investigated how various species of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses, vary from place to place.
Other researchers had been working on a similar platform based on the examination of pollen. But Green and her team were able to sequence not only the pollen gene, but other organisms that were covering it as well.
The result is a tool that can be used for a variety of purposes, including tracing the origin of contaminated food back to the farm or processing plant, ensuring that materials are being produced at authorized factories, preventing counterfeiting, and even combatting terrorism.
Scientists completed the mapping of the human genome in 2003. Only recently, however, has the cost of DNA sequencing fallen to where it has become economically feasible for everyday use by manufacturers and global supply chains. And the price of the technology continues to drop virtually week by week, Green says.
The cost of the hardware is falling as well, as the ease of use improves. When Green founded Phylagen in 2014, handheld sequencers weren’t on the market. Since then, the equipment has shrunk dramatically in size. At the same time, advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have made the devices smarter and more effective.
Phylagen is creating a microbial map, displaying all of the genetic information that’s encoded in locations throughout the world. The air in a particular factory, for example, will contain invisible motes of dust that bear a unique profile. By converting the genetic material into sequence data — essentially, a string of letters that make up the genetic code of all living things — Phylagen generates a naturally occurring bar code for each location.
The genetic material stays with the manufactured product even as it travels to a distribution center and is enclosed in packaging. For agricultural products that undergo fermentation, the company applies a different set of algorithms derived from machine learning. A food product can be traced back to the farm — even a specific part of that farm — by examining the unique genetic material residing in the soil.
Green also envisions the use of microbiome analytics to confirm the presence of conflict minerals — those mined in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example — in manufactured products. Similar investigations could identify the use of palm oil derived from non-sustainable operations and sites engaged in human-rights violations.
Green believes the use of microbiome analytics could have prevented past tragedies such as the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh, which caused the death of 1,134 workers and injured approximately 2,500 others. The facility was operating as an unauthorized and undisclosed contractor for a number of major apparel brands.
Phylagen is still in the early stages of development. In February, it announced $14m in Series A financing, led by several venture capital providers. The money will be spent on expanding the company’s service and microbiome database, Green says.
Phylagen declined to disclose its current customers, but says they include “large North American brands and retailers who are currently deploying the company’s solution in manufacturing locations worldwide.”
In its current form, the technology is being applied to retail and apparel goods. Green sees a “tremendous opportunity” to partner with brands investing in other markets, including food and agriculture. For now, however, Phylagen is aiming to expand its deployments in consumer packaged goods.
Green sees further value in the technology’s eventual ability to help farmers understand what types of microbes are affecting their products. The information could be used to improve quality and safety, she says.
Phylagen is “well on our way” to creating a microbiome map of the world, Green says. As the database expands, she expects the technology to find additional applications in predictive risk analysis.
“I can’t think of a platform where this is not relevant,” she says.
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