Tracing technologies became an essential tool for companies in a diverse range of areas, such as industrial and environmental fluid monitoring (e.g. track subsurface fluids in order to map underground geothermal/oil reservoirs), authentication and traceability of products (e.g. fuels, luxury goods). However, current tracing technologies have demonstrated major limitations due to lack of a large number of distinct «fingerprints» (uniquely detectable tracers), their cost, and toxicity.
A research team in the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich has developed a disruptive DNA-based tracing technology, based on the use of a new class of tracers, composed of DNA sequences (the actual tracer) encapsulated within extremely small particles. The technology provides a theoretically unlimited number of unique fingerprints, absence of toxicity, and is cost-effective.
The DNA-based tracing platform can have a significant impact on society: from speeding up geothermal energy development and utilization by increasing the knowledge of the underground, to tracing and monitoring products and assets in a safer, more reliable, and less expensive manner. Now that this potential has been demonstrated at a research level, on a small scale, it is necessary to develop an industry-relevant platform, from which society can really benefit.
The proposed project aims at developing the processes required for efficient tracer manufacture and detection for large-scale, real-life applications, with focus on the use of the tracers for enhanced exploration and monitoring of underground reservoirs.
What is special about the project?
The technology combines in a novel, original way the use of DNA, bio-analytics and particle technology, to generate a potent solution, capable of bringing traceability to the next level. Thanks to its significantly higher versatility and sensitivity than current tracers, and the integration of multiple functions (e.g. sensing, data storage), the technology is a promising candidate to become the new standard in the tracing industry.
However, even after years of successful research, the technology will not reach its full advantage until robust manufacturing and analytical methods to deliver these products are developed for large scale, real life uses. Additionally, industry leaders interested in our technology, have underlined the importance of having access to fast results on-site. Without this feature, many potential users, in both the geothermal/oilfield and the anti-counterfeiting business, would be reluctant to implement the technology. At the moment, we use standard benchtop qPCR machines, which only allow to obtain results within 1.5-2 hours. However, faster, portable detection solutions are nowadays available and can be integrated (after appropriate modification/optimization) in our system to achieve a ca. three-fold reduction in the analysis time. Finally, setting stringent tracer quality control requirements is essential for product/service delivery.
This project aims at filling the mentioned gaps and advancing towards technology commercialization.
A team in the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich has developed the tracing platform. It has been demonstrated that the encapsulation increases DNA stability - up to 1000 longer lifetime than non-encapsulated DNA - providing unprecedented resilience in hostile environments. Moreover, the DNA sequences can easily be released by particle dissolution with diluted fluoride buffers, and analysed with high specificity by real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), a simple and inexpensive method widely used in biology, medical and forensic diagnostics. Such tracers can be mixed with any fluid or product, providing it with a unique “fingerprint” easy to identify and quantify. More recently, encapsulated DNA has been used for measuring temperature, oxidative stress, light, pH.
A tracing and sensing platform prototype has been established, and secured with two patent applications. The platform has been tested and validated through successful, interdisciplinary research studies, including but not limited to hydrogeological applications, labelling polymer products, fuels, cosmetics, foodstuff (>15 scientific articles in outstanding journals). These studies have highlighted the potential of the technology and raised the interest of public institutions, private enterprises, as well as of the media.
The project has been awarded the ETH Pioneer Fellowship to support the development of the original platform prototype towards an optimized version, with special focus on technology validation through field-tests at various aquifers/hydrogeological sites (geothermal/oilfield related applications).
G. Mikutis, C. A. Mora, M. Puddu, R. N. Grass, W. J. Stark, DNA-based sensor particles enable measuring light intensity in single cells, Adv. Mater., 28(14), 2765-2770, 2015.
Featured in Nature Review Materials;
M. Puddu, G. Mikutis, W. J. Stark, R. N. Grass, Submicrometer-sized thermometer particles exploiting selective nucleic acid stability, Small, 12(4), 452-456, 2015;
M. Puddu, D. Paunescu, W. J. Stark, R. N. Grass, Magnetically recoverable, thermostable, hydrophobic DNA/Silica encapsulates and their application as invisible oil tags, ACS Nano, 8, 2677-2685, 2014;
D. Paunescu, M. Puddu, J.O.B. Soellner, P.R. Stoessel, R.N. Grass, Reversible DNA encapsulation in silica to produce ROS-resistant and heat-resistant synthetic DNA ‘fossils’, Nat. Protoc., 8, 2440-2448, 2013.
Other Persons involved in the project
Last update to this project presentation 16.07.2018