Guelph researchers develop food fraud detector you can use at home

Researchers at the University of Guelph have launched the LifeScanner kit, which allows people to identify the meat they're about to eat or the bugs in their backyard using a DNA barcode.

Test food and funny looking bugs with a smartphone app and a team of researchers

Not sure what you're eating? A new DNA barcoding kit allows you to take a sample and find out. The LifeScanner kit, developed by researchers at the University of Guelph, can also be used it to identify insects. (Tom Lynn/Associated Press)

You can now detect food fraud at home, or figure out what kind of creepy crawly insect is in your garden, using a new kit developed by researchers at the University of Guelph.

The LifeScanner Species Identification Kit combines smartphone technology, a DNA identification kit and scientists who test the samples. The researchers say the goal of the kit is to allow non-scientists to learn about the organisms they encounter in the garden or in another country or even what exactly they're prepping for dinner.

Sujeevan Ratnasingham is the associate director of informatics at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics and founder of LifeScanner. 

To use the kit, Ratnasingham explains you put the sample in the vial, shake it, scan the code, fill out an online form and then "throw the vial in the mail."

"It shows up at our lab where the DNA is extracted and the DNA barcode is read and scanned against the global database to identify the species and the information just goes flying right back to the user's mobile app," he said.

"They get a little alert and they can see where the organism lives, other places where it's been found, other images of the organism and descriptions, if it's a known organism," he added. "In many cases, people find when they use the LifeScanner tool, they find unknown organisms."

The LifeScanner kit includes vials to send items into researchers along with tweezers and information on the phone app to use. (LifeScanner/@LifeScanApp/Twitter)

Discover a new species?

Ratnasingham says there are 10 to 20 million species in the planet that are unknown to science. At least 1.8 million species have a name.

Testing from a park in New Zealand showed up a number of organisms that were unidentified.

"A group used the kits for a 'bio blitz' to figure out species that lived in a park," Ratnasingham said. "They found 10 to 20 per cent new species that a New Zealand university is now doing the work to describe the species."

The university has done research into food fraud, including fish mislabelling and what is really in that all-beef sausage you can get at the grocery store.

The LifeScanner kits recently won the grand prize at a pitch competition at the University of Guelph.

Two kits are available for purchase through the company's website. The four-vial kit costs $50. The two-vial kit costs $30.

Along with the vials each kit contains, tweezers, a DNA fluid for the collected tissue, as well as instructions and a return shipment bag that is designed for bio-materials. Each kit includes a padded mailing envelope that can be returned to a LifeScanner lab. 

Ratnasingham says they're available through the group's website.

Results take up to two weeks.