Development of DNA-based screening and identification methods for (food) authentication

Currently, food/feed authentication is one of the upcoming topics around the world. Processed food/feed products are more vulnerable to adulterations and ensuring its authenticity is really challenging. DNA-based screening and identification methods is one approach to identify the raw materials used to obtain the processed/complex product, but the applicability of advanced DNA methods has so far not been fully investigated. DNA-based screening methods can be based on identifying known or unknown genomic sequences. Identifying the endangered species in complex mixtures could be achieved by using DNA-based screening approaches for the known sequence that is specific for this endangered species. Overall, more than 33,000 species of flora and fauna are categorised as endangered species. Although international trade agreements are being implemented, illegal trading and the use of (parts of) endangered species are still common practice. Usually, visual inspection (microscopy, etc.) is the initial approach to identify the endangered species in the customs offices. If the product is more complex or processed, visual inspection will not be sufficient. In those cases, DNA-based methods may be more appropriate to detect and identify the endangered species that may be present in the sample.

To identify genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including unauthorised genetically modified organisms (UGMOs) a similar DNA-based approach can be used to characterise the unknown genomic sequence, adjacent to known GMO sequences. GMOs need to be assessed for their food/feed and environmental safety prior to market introduction. In recent years, the number of incidents related to the presence of UGMOs and (UGM) derived products (food and feed) have globally increased. DNA-based enrichment strategies are applied to identify the unknown adjacent sequence of the known GMO elements to positively identify also unknown UGMOs that have not (yet) been assessed for their safety.

This project is aimed to understand how advanced DNA-based methods can be applied for food/feed authenticity issues related to the potential presence of endangered species and UGMOs. The PhD project aims to evaluate advanced DNA methodologies (including Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)) in terms of applicability and sensitivity for authenticity purposes. To this end simple reference materials will be used, as well as well-characterised complex mixtures and real-life samples that may contain endangered species and UGMOs, respectively.