What's In That Fish Stick? Give It A DNA Test Brenda Tan and Matt Cost, high school seniors from Trinity School in New York City, used a technique called DNA barcoding to find out what species were present in over 200 animal products. Their results suggest buyers should beware!
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What's In That Fish Stick? Give It A DNA Test

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What's In That Fish Stick? Give It A DNA Test

What's In That Fish Stick? Give It A DNA Test

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I'm Ira Flatow now, here with Flora Lichtman, our digital video producer. Oh, and we have a good one this week, don't we? Our Video Pick of the Week.



LICHTMAN: Yes, we do. You know, it's sort of related, right? So we were just talking about what's in your water bottle.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: But what about what's in your fish sticks or what's in your chicken fried steak?

FLATOW: Or your hamburger.

LICHTMAN: Or your hamburger.

FLATOW: Or that hot dog on the street. Don't you worry about that hot dog...

LICHTMAN: So - yes.

FLATOW: ...from the vendor?

LICHTMAN: I - we have good news for hot dog lovers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: People, listen up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Because the Video Pick of the Week actually went out and...

LICHTMAN: We met up with two young investigators who basically DNA-tested 200 animal products, including a New York hot dog. So the story takes place at - in high school. And if you're getting heart palpitations and sweating like me, don't worry. This is a friendly -we're in friendly territory here.

FLATOW: Friendly territory.

LICHTMAN: These are science students who use this technique called genetic bar coding, with the help of a professor at Rockefeller University, Mark Stoeckle, to look into what things in the supermarket, things in the refrigerator are made from.

FLATOW: And take DNA tests on the samples of these.

LICHTMAN: They took samples. So, basically, they took samples, and then they sent the samples to the Natural History Museum in New York. And the Natural History Museum sent them back DNA code...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...that they could use to identify what species were present in the samples that they sent.

FLATOW: From like a dictionary of DNA codes, right?


FLATOW: And encyclopedia.

LICHTMAN: Right. The codes needed to be in the database to be able to identify it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: But if they're in the database, then you know, okay, is my hot dog made of cat or is it beef?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And so...

FLATOW: Is that real fish I'm eating, or is it a squid? Or something like that.


FLATOW: Right. That sort of...

LICHTMAN: And they got, I think, some pretty surprising results. So let's get to the hot dog, because I think that's...

FLATOW: No, no, you have to go watch the video.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Okay, never mind. You'll never know unless you watch the video.

FLATOW: It's film at 11, as they say in the news industry. But if you go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, Flora's Video Pick of the Week is up on our left. You'll actually find out what's in a hot dog when you eat that hot dog. And how many other stuff - things?

LICHTMAN: Two hundred other items, and a few things were mislabeled...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: ...we should say.

FLATOW: And then they had like a, what are these, serendipity moments, right?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. This is the best part. First of all, these kids, Matt Cost and Brenda Tan, are like the most sophisticated seniors in high school I've ever talked to. I mean, they just are excellent explainers. And they said that one of the samples they tested was an insect, you know, ubiquitous in New York.

FLATOW: New York - can you guess what that is?

LICHTMAN: I think you can.

FLATOW: Right. It scurries around at night: cockroach. Of course.

LICHTMAN: It's a cockroach. It's a cockroach. And it was found in their adviser's, apartment actually. And he, you know, sent it in. It looks like an American cockroach, seemed like the same, old thing. And they found out - and this pretty amazing - that it was quite different from any other cockroach in the dictionary of - this database of DNA testing.

FLATOW: Genetically speaking, it wasn't like anything else.

LICHTMAN: It - right, exactly.


LICHTMAN: And so that means that they may have discovered a new species of cockroach as part of this experiment.

FLATOW: Wow. Can you imagine in New York an undiscovered cockroach new species?

LICHTMAN: Who knows how many species of cockroach are scurrying around?

FLATOW: Does that mean they get named after them, the species?

LICHTMAN: Apparently, yeah. That's the convention. If it turns out - you know, they're sending all their materials to the cockroach expert in the UK.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And if it turns out that this really is a new species -because they tested - so they tested this one, and then they actually had to go back and collect, like, two dozen others from the same building. So I, you know, I think...

FLATOW: It would take about a minute and a half.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. You want to ruin the building, you could just name it after, you know, 101 Madison Avenue or whatever.

FLATOW: But that's not the place, not the place, though, right?

LICHTMAN: That's not the place.

FLATOW: But - so that was the bonus. So they not only tested the food -and on the Video Pick of the Week, you get to see them test the food and learn about what's in on New York City hot dogs...


FLATOW: ...but to see them discover - I guess, where there's food, there's cockroaches, right?


(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Get to see...

LICHTMAN: Circle of life.

FLATOW: Circle of life - and get to see this new species of cockroach.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And I think they had some - I think it's worth checking out, just to see what other things were mislabeled.


LICHTMAN: You know, what - some things were labeled one way and came back another way.

FLATOW: That's Flora Lichtman's Video Pick of the Week, right there on our Web site, sciencefriday.com, top left corner, you get to see a video. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Great, as always.

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