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Gramercy Students Expose Produce Fraud Using DNA Tests

By Heather Holland | May 5, 2013 9:14am | Updated on May 5, 2013 10:15am
 Students at Manhattan Comprehensive School will present a DNA study at the Museum of Natural History.
Gramercy Students' DNA Study Tests Truth in Labeling of Produce
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GRAMERCY — Students at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day School are studying the DNA of aloe vera and sea urchins sampled from supermarkets throughout to city in order to identify species, and in some cases, expose commercial fraud.

Two groups of 10th grade students at the Gramercy school, located at 240 Second Ave., scoured supermarkets in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan for samples of sea urchins and aloe vera products to use for a project called "DNA Barcoding," said Alfred Lwin, a teacher who is mentoring the teams.

“Every living thing organism has a specific barcode that can be used to identify species, kind of like when you swab a cheek for a paternity test,” said Lwin.

Once the samples were gathered, the students began the process of extracting DNA, cloning the DNA, sequencing and finally writing a research paper of their results, which will be presented at the New York City Urban Barcode Project's symposium held at the Museum of Natural History on May 29.

The main goal of the project, which is sponsored by the Cold Spring Harbor DNA Lab based in Long Island, is to engage students in science and to make a contribution to society, he explained.

For instance, DNA barcoding can be a useful tool in distinguishing fake seafood from genuine, and can expose vendors who mislabel their products, Lwin continued.

“When people go to the supermarket and they’re told ‘this is exotic sea urchin,’ they buy it at a high price and it could turn out to be octopus or calamari,” said Lwin.

In most cases, the DNA tests found that the products were real, but there was something odd about the samples of aloe vera juice products, he said.

“In aloe vera juice, we extracted DNA and found something unusual,” said Lwin. “We found something shocking actually, but we can’t reveal it yet because of the rules.”

The students have worked on the DNA barcoding project on Fridays and Saturdays for the past six months, and they will be working on their research all the way up to the day of the presentation, said Lwin.

Many of the students who participated in the project are over-age, between ages 19 and 20, or immigrants, he noted.

“The students are very motivated,” said Lwin. “[They’re] going way beyond the high school level with this project, and they’ll be able to utilize the knowledge for the rest of their lives.”

Currently, the students have had to travel to the Dolan DNA Lab, located at 2351 First Avenue in East Harlem, to do their work due to lack of equipment at their own school, but Manhattan Comprehensive will be opening its own bio-technology lab soon, said Lwin.

“It’s already in the works,” said Lwin, though he did not know when the new lab would open. “Then, the students won’t have to go anywhere to do their work. All the equipment will be right here.”