The next time you order red snapper from a restaurant, it could actually be the lower-quality fish tilapia. That grouper you bought at the grocery store may in fact be catfish. And that pricier, canned white tuna or albacore could be escolar, which can cause digestion problems. It makes you wonder, do you know what kind of fish you are eating?
According to the Food and Drug Administration port inspections, a third of seafood sold in the U.S. is mislabeled as one type when it’s actually something else, even something cheaper. The FDA purchased five DNA testing machines last year to test for fish fraud.
University of Alabama at Birmingham Biotechnology student Jeff Hicks says he’s working on an “app” to detect the species of fish and any disease-causing organisms at a quicker rate than the FDA’s machines.
“Right now it takes days even weeks to test the fish,” said Hicks. “My app would take only four hours.”
Hicks is designing the app or the technical term assays, which is diagnostic testing for diseases and microorganisms, for the iCubate system, a product developed by Jian Han, M.D., a faculty investigator for HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala. The iCubate technology, multiplex PCR, is fully automated and enclosed with less risk of contamination that will allow the detection of multiple targets in one sample. The technology is considered a huge improvement over DNA testing.
“I challenged the Biotechnology students to develop an app that would protect human health or the environment,” said Han.
Like an Apple store, anyone can develop an app for the iPhone. Han is taking that same business model for the iCubate system. Students will design, strategize and culminate in testing of these diagnostic kits using his platform.
“We are opening the technology to allow anyone to create an app for iCubate and sell it on our online store,” said Han. “The students create the app and have the potential to make a percentage of the profit.”
Han has been driving to Birmingham two days a week on his own time to work with the students to help develop their products. Kathy Nugent, Ph.D., the director of the Biotechnology program in the Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences, says the partnership is very unique.
“This is something you don’t see in this industry,” said Nugent. “This gives the students access to tap in their entrepreneurial spirit and be able to test immediately. If it works, the potential is enormous.”
Each student is developing their own app, but only a few will be chosen to move forward.
“Once we select the five best products/apps, we will work with the UAB Research Foundation, Dr. Han and the iCubate team to move them forward for potential commercialization opportunities,” said Tino Unlap, Ph.D., an associate professor for the program.
Hicks said it should only take one to two months to develop the app. With seafood an $80 billion dollar industry, he sees the value for this quick technology testing.
“I feel this app has the potential to make a huge impact in an industry that needs it,” said Hicks.
Nugent says the partnership with iCubate speaks to the credibility of our program.
“We’re giving our students the foundation and apply that knowledge immediately,” said Nugent. “Biotechnology is key to answering not only health and environmental but economical issues as well. The amount of jobs that could be potentially created from the fish app is huge. And it was an idea created here by one of our students.”