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Follow the DNA

Rather than using dyes or radioactive materials, some companies are turning to DNA as a tracer molecule, the Economist reports.

The oil and other industries use tracers to map underground stores of oil, water, and gas, it adds, to best plan how to extract those resources. But there are only a hundred or so such tracers around, which the Economist says limits the number of injections and subsequent tracking that can be done in a given area.

But some companies have turned to DNA as a tracer molecule, even though DNA doesn't always do well in extreme environments, it reports. But to make it work, companies are trying a range of approaches. For instance, BaseTrace in North Carolina is folding up its DNA tracers into a variety of secondary structures to weather the stresses, while Norway's Well Genetics is wrapping its DNA tracers in polymer coats, as is the UK's Tracesa. Swiss company Haelixa, meanwhile, is using a glass coat that they've also engineered to measure the temperatures and acidities it encounters. The Economist adds that many of these approaches have just entered testing.

"Mapping what is going on underground has always been hard. Yet underground is where most natural resources lie," it adds. "A better understanding of the subterranean will help those resources to be extracted more cheaply and cleanly."