Lasers and DNA protect pieces of history

Solid-state lasers and synthetic DNA are working together to ensure the authenticity of baseball-player Mark McGwire`s record-breaking 70th home-run ball. The ball, which was auctioned off in January, was permanently tagged with an invisible DNA ink compound that can be seen only when illuminated by a proprietary diode-laser wavelength. Both the DNA compound and the laser scanner that reads it were developed by DNA Technologies (Los Angeles, CA).

Lasers and DNA protect pieces of history

Kathy Kincade

Solid-state lasers and synthetic DNA are working together to ensure the authenticity of baseball-player Mark McGwire`s record-breaking 70th home-run ball. The ball, which was auctioned off in January, was permanently tagged with an invisible DNA ink compound that can be seen only when illuminated by a proprietary diode-laser wavelength. Both the DNA compound and the laser scanner that reads it were developed by DNA Technologies (Los Angeles, CA).

Using DNA technology to combat sports memorabilia and autograph forgeries is a major breakthrough, according to Steve Rocchi, president of Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA; Newport Beach, CA). PSA, a leading authenticator of sports memorabilia and collectibles, began working with DNA Technologies last summer to prevent piracy and counterfeits of autographs and other collectibles.

"DNA tagging presents an unprecedented level of confidence for future owners of these baseballs and an insurmountable obstacle to would-be counterfeiters," Rocchi says. The same anticounterfeiting tactics will be used by DNA Technologies for tickets and security passes at the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia. They are also used in a variety of merchandise-authentication and asset-management applications, such as protecting original art pieces--most notably the work of painter Thomas Kinkade, who uses DNA-tagged ink to sign his paintings. The DNA compound also can be applied as an invisible spray or applied with a stamp or marker.

For both proprietary and security reasons, DNA Technologies president Chris Atwater is reluctant to disclose too much about how the company`s patent-pending process and technology work. All he will say is that the hand-held laser device--which reportedly can be purchased for about $50--can be used in both contact and noncontact modes and that it guarantees 99.5% accuracy of authentication.

"We are not reading DNA molecules directly with the laser," Atwater says. "We are reading a photosensitive material that is bonded to the DNA sequence in the matrix that goes into the ink or thermal ribbon."

The DNA technology was originally developed in the mid-1990s by Charles Butland, an engineer who tried to commercialize it for art-security applications through a company called ArtGuard. But the company foundered before expanding into sports memorabilia and other covert security applications. More recently, DNA Technologies has branched out into asset-management and protection for several large film studios and multimedia companies. Other emerging products include secure barcode readers and miniature spectrum-analysis devices for high-speed detection of complex optical signatures, which will initially be used to protect foreign currency.

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