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Your Friend 'Til the End: An Oral History of Child's Play

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As a film student at UCLA in the mid-1980s, Don Mancini was amused by the hysteria surrounding the Cabbage Patch Kids, those ubiquitous, slightly homely dolls that were disappearing from toy shelves and prompting physical fights between parents. Mancini’s father had worked in the advertising industry all his life, and his son knew how effective marketing could pull strings, resulting in consumer bedlam.

“I wanted to write a dark satire about how marketing affected children,” Mancini tells mental_floss. “Cabbage Patch was really popular. I put the two impulses together.”

Out of Mancini’s efforts came Child’s Play, the 1988 film written by a college student, directed by a horror veteran, and produced by a man who had just finished an animated family film for Steven Spielberg. Like 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the movie was a well-received, effects-heavy twist on the slasher genre. And like that film, it birthed one of the great horror icons of the 20th century: Chucky, the carrot-topped doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

The portable monster—or, as Mancini puts it, an “innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth”—went on to star in five sequels, a Universal Studios horror attraction, and a comic book, launching Mancini’s career and providing horror fans with another antihero to root for. With a new Collector's Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, mental_floss spoke with the cast and crew members who endured an uncooperative puppet, freezing weather, and setting an actor on fire to break new territory in creating a highly animated, expressive, and iconic tiny terror.

I: BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED

After two years as an English major at Columbia University, Don Mancini transferred to UCLA with an eye on becoming a filmmaker. A teacher was impressed with his first script, Split Screen, about a small town overtaken by a horror production. Riding on that enthusiasm, Mancini tackled his second script by exploring the idea that a doll could be a child’s violent alter ego.

Don Mancini (Writer): Being a horror fan all of my life, I had seen Trilogy of Terror, I had seen the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone, and I knew the killer doll trope. But what I realized was that it had never been done as a feature-length film in the age of animatronics.

Howard Berger (Special Effects Artist, KNB): Animatronics were not exactly booming, but we were doing what we could with them. At the time, they were not nearly as advanced as what would eventually be required for Chucky.

David Kirschner (Executive Producer): I had just done my first film for Steven Spielberg, An American Tail, and was in London where I bought a book called The Dollhouse Murders. I read it, got back home, and told my development person that I’d love to do something with dolls.

Mancini: This was shortly after Gremlins, and effects had progressed to the point where you could create a puppet that was extremely articulated.

Kirschner: Talky Tina terrified me as a kid. My sister’s dolls did, too. They had a night light under them, like when you hold a flashlight up to your chin.

Mancini: Before, the doll jaws in movies had been kind of floppy or Muppet-like, but there was a new level of nuance I thought I could take advantage of.

Kirschner: I later co-wrote a movie with Richard Matheson, The Dreamer of Oz, which we did with John Ritter. He was a paternal figure in my life, and strangely, I never did ask him about [co-writing the 1975 TV movie] Trilogy of Terror.

Tom Holland (Co-Writer, Director): I quoted Trilogy of Terror to everyone. I basically got involved with this movie due to the sequence, “Prey,” and how they put a camera on a skateboard for a doll to terrorize Karen Black, shaking it from side to side. It looked terrific.

Mancini: This was shortly after A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was really important in the development of the slasher genre. Freddy was a villain with a very distinct sense of humor, someone who could taunt victims verbally. I was quite consciously influenced by that with Chucky, the idea of an innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth.

Kirschner: It was in many ways what Spielberg had done with Poltergeist, which was about suburbia and bringing the terror home.

Mancini: It was originally titled Batteries Not Included. I was living in a house off-campus with three other film students, one of whom had graduated and was working as an assistant to a producer at Orion Pictures. She passed it on to his boss, who read it and passed it on to an agent. He got wind Steven Spielberg was doing a movie with the same title and suggested I change it. So it went out as Blood Buddy.

Kirschner: The development person said, “Actually, there’s a script that’s been making the rounds called Blood Buddy, but everyone’s passed on it.” I read it and loved Don’s idea.

Mancini: It's not completely true [that everyone passed]. I did get some bites. Charles Band was one producer who saw it and liked it. He had a studio that turned out really low-budget horror and exploitation films. I don’t remember why he didn’t buy it, but he did end up doing movies called Dolls and Puppet Master. And he hired me to write a movie called Cellar Dwellers, which I used a pseudonym on.

Holland: In Don’s original script, there needed to be a way to sympathize with the son and mother.

Mancini: In my script, the doll was not possessed by a killer. The doll was a manifestation of a little boy’s unconscious rage, his id.

Kirschner: The idea of what brought the doll to life wasn’t there yet.

Mancini: If you played too rough with him, his latex skin would break and he’d bleed this red substance so you’d have to buy special bandages. So the boy, Andy, in a rite of brotherhood, cuts his thumb and mixes it with the doll’s blood, and that’s the catalyst that brings the doll to life.

Kirschner: At that point, I was a relatively new father and wasn’t sure anybody would buy a doll with blood in it. It didn’t make sense to me, but there were a lot of cool things in there, some cool deaths.

Mancini: He starts acting out against the boy’s enemies, which he might not even be able to express. Like a babysitter who tells him to go to bed, or a teacher who gives him a bad grade.

Holland: What Don wrote originally felt more like a Twilight Zone episode. The little boy fell asleep and the doll came to life. It didn’t emotionally involve you.

Mancini: Ultimately, the mother was a target, too. The kid had an unconscious resentment toward her. She was an ambitious single mother who wasn’t around, so she got him the hot toy.

In my script, the doll wasn’t really seen until the third act, where he's spouting one-liners and killing the kid’s dentist. I should really bring that back at some point.

Kirschner: I did two drawings of the character and went out to studios. A guy I had never heard of named Tony Thomopoulos from United Artists came to my office and said, “We want to make this movie.” He was wonderful and he lived up to everything he ever promised.

With Kirschner attracting interest in Blood Buddy, he began the process of revising the script on the belief that audiences needed a more sympathetic character than a boy with a murderous alter ego.

Kirschner: The studio did not want Don, so we brought in John Lafia.

John Lafia (Co-Writer): I believe David and I were at the same agency at the time and got introduced that way. He showed me Don’s draft and that’s how I got involved. He told me his take on it and I did two drafts. This was after Tom had come on for the first time.

Holland: I had come on the project once before and couldn’t solve it. In horror, the audience is involved in direct proportion to how much you care about the people. And that wasn’t the situation here. So I left to go do Fatal Beauty with Whoopi Goldberg.

Lafia: I went to a toy store and looked around. I remember picking up a Bugs Bunny, pulling the string, and hearing a scratchy voice. There was also a freaky Woody Woodpecker that talked.

Holland: You had to set up a situation where you can believe in a possessed doll, which sounds silly in the light of day, but that was the job.

Lafia: I was thinking of The Terminator, actually, but in micro form. Just this thing that keeps coming.

Kirschner: John got us to a point where we could go to directors. I met with William Friedkin, who I was terrified of, but he was a wonderful man. And I talked to Irvin Kershner, who did The Empire Strikes Back.

Lafia: I think the biggest contribution I made was to give the character a back story so it was a human who somehow became a doll. In my draft, it became Charles Lee Ray. I coined the name Chucky.

Holland: By the time I came around a second time, Lafia had done a rewrite and I think they had spoken with Joe Ruben, who had done The Stepfather. In the year or so I spent away from it, I figured out how to involve the killer.

Kirschner: I had seen Fright Night, which I loved. Tom seemed nice. I called Spielberg because Tom had done an Amazing Stories for him. He said Tom was an arrogant guy, but talented.

Mancini: I was still just a kid in school. It was just sort of this unspoken thing—pushing you out the door. Let the adults take over.

Lafia: My take on it, and I don’t think Don’s was that far off, was more like Poltergeist, with a family threatened by supernatural forces. I remember David and I watching that movie to refresh our memory.

Mancini: I was excited. I was a fan of Fright Night, of Psycho II.

Holland: I learned so much by writing Psycho II about moving movies forward visually. I had to study Alfred Hitchcock.

Mancini: It was Tom or David or John who brought in the voodoo, which I was never thrilled with and a mythology we got stuck with for six movies.

Lafia: My device was not voodoo. It was more of a Frankenstein-type of moment at a toy factory. A prisoner was being electrocuted on death row and his spirit got into the doll. We would cross-cut with his execution and the doll being manufactured.

Mancini: Tom has said over the years that it’s an original screenplay even though the credits say it isn’t, which is complete bullsh*t.

Holland: The Guild is set up to protect the writer. It is what it is. Failure has no fathers, success has many.

Securing Holland gave Blood Buddy—now titled Child’s Play—a strong anchor, but the film would succeed or fail based on whether the movie could convince audiences a malevolent doll could go on a killing spree. To make that happen, Kirschner enlisted Kevin Yagher, a 24-year-old effects expert who had worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Yagher and a team of effects artists, including Howard Berger, would spend months perfecting ways to bring the puppet to life.

Kirschner: I drew Chucky in graphite, and Kevin brought him to life incredibly.

Berger: David’s drawings were a great jumping-off point. We had so many versions of Chucky. The one we used most was from the waist-up.

Mancini: I was so involved with school that it was all just moving along without me. I had no involvement with the doll's development.

Berger: He really couldn’t walk. We tried putting him on a six-foot dolly, but it just sort of dragged itself along.

Kirschner: If you’ve got someone controlling the eyes, someone else the mouth, someone else the hands, something will go wrong. It’s going to take a very long time. But Kevin and his team were amazing.

Berger: We made the doll heads to look increasingly more human as the movie goes on. The hairline begins to match Brad Dourif’s.

Mancini: Over the course of the movie, his hairline is receding. At the top of the movie, he’s got a full mop of hair. Visually, it was cool, but I was never down with the story logic. Why would that happen? What does it mean? Does it mean he’d ultimately be a human thing?

Berger: We had different expressions. A neutral one, angry, one that was screaming. One Chucky we literally just hooked up to a Nikita drill motor. When you turn him on, he’d just spin and flail around, kicking.

Mancini: While I was still writing the script, a lawyer had encouraged me to describe the doll in great detail—in as much detail as I could think up. Because if the movie became a hit and if there was merchandise, there would be a scramble over who was legally the creator of the character. And sure enough, there was.

Berger: Chucky went through a few iterations. Originally his head was more football-shaped, like a Zeppelin.

Mancini: I was very distinct in the script: red hair, two feet tall, blue eyes, freckles, striped shirt. David designed the doll, but didn’t deviate from those details. 

Kirschner: After American Tail, I wanted to do something different. My agent was not happy about it. My mother was not happy about it. My wife thought it was great.

II: THE ASSEMBLY LINE

Child’s Play began production in the winter of 1988 in Chicago and Los Angeles—the former during the coldest time of the year. Holland’s cast included Catherine Hicks as Karen Barclay, Chris Sarandon as Detective Mike Norris, and Brad Dourif as Charles Lee Ray, the killer fated to become trapped in the plastic prison of a retail toy.

For shots beyond the ability of the puppet to perform, Holland enlisted actor Ed Gale, a three-foot, six-inch tall performer who had made his film debut as the title character in 1986’s Howard the Duck.

Ed Gale (“Chucky”): I knew Howard Berger from other projects. I met with Tom having just done Spaceballs. I wound up doing Child’s Play and Phantasm II at the same time. I don't take credit for being Chucky. It's Brad [Dourif], the puppeteers, and me.

Holland: Brad is wonderful, a genuine actor.

Alex Vincent (“Andy Barclay”): Brad’s voice was on playback on the set. The puppeteers would synch the movement to his voice, sometimes at half-speed.

Mancini: There was a Writers Guild strike and I wasn’t legally allowed to be on the set, so I didn’t rejoin the process until after shooting was over. But I don’t think I would’ve been welcome anyway.

Holland: I don’t remember ever meeting Don. I thought the writer’s strike was toward the end of shooting.

Mancini: My understanding through David is that Tom was the auteur and wouldn’t want anyone else around.

Holland: He certainly would have been welcome to come to the set.

Although a few of Holland’s leads struggled—Sarandon’s vocal cords once froze during a sub-zero exterior shot—nothing caused more trouble with the production than Chucky, a complex mechanism requiring multiple puppeteers. His presence led to differing opinions over how best to approach the tone of the film. 

Kirschner: This was my first live-action film project. I was a real quiet, shy person, and Tom was a real presence.

Gale: Tom was very driven and focused. I very distinctly remember a scene where Alex needed to cry and Tom was spitballing how he could get him to react. He was asking the social worker, “Can I blow smoke in his face? Can I pinch him?”

Holland: I was very sensitive to Alex’s feelings. He was not an actor with experience. I hugged him after reach take.

Vincent: Tom was very passionate about getting specific things from me and being really happy when he got them.

Gale: I think he wound up telling him scary stories.

Holland: I don’t remember any scary stories. I just kept having him do the scene. 

Vincent: I don’t remember anything specific he said. I do remember that they ran out of film when I was doing it and I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep crying.”

Gale: When you look at the crying scene, it’s pretty convincing. Tom is a genius director. As a person, I won’t comment.

Kirschner: I felt he kept showing too much of the doll. I wanted to be gentlemanly about it and kept whispering in his ear, and he was getting fed up with me.

Berger: The doll was a pain in the ass. Everything was a hassle. I remember the scene where Chucky was in a mental hospital electrocuting a doctor. It took 27 takes to get him to press a button.

Vincent: I was aware of the puppet [being slow] because I’d be standing there for 43 takes. Having him flip his middle finger was this whole process.

Kirschner: The doll was not working great. Jaws had come out and I had seen how great that worked. You were postponing the fear. Tom wanted to show the doll.

Holland: The studio was applying pressure because of costs. It became more tension-filled.

Berger: Chucky made a horrible noise when he moved because of the servos—like scree, scree. He was very noisy.

Kirschner: I felt it should be more like Jaws or Alien where you don’t see anything for a long time.

Holland: There was a disagreement as to tone. David made movies for children.

Vincent: I remember being taken off set a couple of times when there was a fight or disagreement. I’d have some big production assistant put me on his shoulders and carry me out.

Berger: What you have to remember is, it took quite a few of us to make the doll work. Someone was doing the hands, then someone else the eyebrows, and someone else the mouth. It was like we all had to become one brain.

Gale: It didn’t really involve me, but I do remember David calling me up at 3 or 4 in the morning just to talk. I told him, “You’re the producer. Put your foot down.”

Kirschner: I won’t go into the near-bloody details of the fight we had. 

Holland: David was a skinny kid then. It never got physical. There was just a difference in temperament.

A difficult performer, Chucky would go on to become the catalyst for strained working relationships on the set.

Kirschner: Kevin Yagher was brilliant at what he did, but he didn’t have a ton of experience. And Tom is screaming and shouting at him.

Holland: It was no knock on Kevin, but it was all the doll could do to take a step.

Berger: Chucky’s fingers would get worn out quickly. The aluminum fingers would begin to poke right through the latex skin. I had this big bag of Chucky hands and changed them three times a day.

Holland: I had a terrible time with the eyeline of the doll. He couldn’t look at actors. The puppeteers were under the set and for reasons I could never figure out, the monitors they had were reversed. He'd look left instead of right.

Kirschner: It took like 11 people to make the puppet work.

Berger: This was a puppet that was radio-controlled who was in half the movie. It was brand-new territory.

Holland leaned on Ed Gale to perform broader movements. Because he was significantly larger than Chucky, the production built sets 30 percent larger than normal to maintain a forced perspective.

Holland: That was something I learned from Darby O’Gill and the Little People. You use forced perspective with overbuilt sets.

Mancini: I thought that was really cool. I love those sleight of hand things.

Gale: Facially, nothing can beat a puppet. But to make it actually work full body, running, or jumping, they needed me.

Mancini: Tom had directed him to walk in a sort of mechanical way, almost like a clockwork. He just marches.

Gale: The puppet would move more smoothly and I’d walk a little more like a robot and we’d meet in the middle. The problem was that I had zero visibility. I’d rehearse and walk through a scene with my eyes closed. It’s like taking a drink while blindfolded. You look like an idiot. I was also set on fire.

Holland: Ed is a very brave guy. 

Gale: I got weaned into it. They set one arm on fire first, then my chest, then both arms. You wear an oxygen mask.

Vincent: I did not want to see that. Ed was my friend and I didn’t want to see him spinning around on fire.

Gale: I did the scene in segments. First I was on fire in the fireplace, cut. Kicking the gate open, cut. Walk out on fire, cut. Each was only about 45 seconds, which is a little less than a lifetime when you’re on fire.

The only close call was when they wanted to drop me into the fireplace. They could see the assistant’s shadow, so they wound up hoisting me up further and I dropped six or eight feet, hurting my back. It put me out of work for a few days. I also got burns on my wrists. Nothing bad.

III: CHUCKY UNLEASHED

After filming on Child's Play was completed in spring 1988, Kirschner wanted to separate himself from Holland, with whom he had developed an acrimonious working relationship.

Kirschner: The film did not screen well. It tested horribly. Tom had a right to his cut. After that, we took him off the film.

Mancini: David invited me to watch the original cut, which was much longer. It was about two hours.

Kirschner: We invited Don in at certain times to bring him back into the process.

Mancini: At that point, David needed a relatively objective opinion of where the movie was. For him to have me voice mine was very gracious. Not all producers would do that.

Kirschner: We cut about a half-hour out of the movie.

Mancini: Seeing the edit was my first time seeing Chucky, which was thrilling. But the voice in the cut was not Brad. It was Jessica Walter [of Arrested Development].

Holland: I tried to use an electronic overlay to the voice, like a Robbie the Robot kind of thing, because that’s how the toys with sound chips worked. Then I tried Jessica Walter, who had been in Play Misty for Me. She could make the threats work, but not the humor. So we went back to Brad.

Mancini: Tom’s logic was that the voice of the devil was done by a woman in The Exorcist. But her voice, while being creepy, just didn’t fit.

Child’s Play premiered on November 11, 1988. Mancini and Kirschner had already gone to test screenings to gauge the reaction of an audience.

Mancini: The scene where the mom finds out that the batteries are included and still in the box was like a cattle prod. The audience just roared.

Holland: I kept building up to that moment where Chucky comes alive in her hands. The doll does a 180 with his head, which is a nod to The Exorcist.

Kirschner: Brad Dourif ad-libbed the line where he’s in an elevator with an older couple and the wife says, “That’s the ugliest doll I’ve ever seen.” Chucky says, “F*ck you.” The audience loved it.

Vincent: My grandfather rented out an entire theater in our hometown for a screening. I wore a tuxedo.

Lafia: I actually didn’t like when they had a little person in the Chucky outfit, only because he looked thicker and bigger. No matter how well a human being moves, your brain just knows it’s not the puppet.

Mancini: There’s a good shot of Ed climbing on the bed with a knife. I thought most of his shots were very successful.

Earning $33 million, Child’s Play became the second-highest grossing horror film of the year, behind the fourth installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. But United Artists, which had supported the production, made the decision not to be involved in a sequel for a reason almost unfathomable in Hollywood: moral grounds.

Kirschner: It was the second highest-grossing film for United Artists that year after Rain Man.

Mancini: The studio initiated a sequel immediately. I was set to work on writing the script by Christmas 1988. John Lafia, who did a draft of the first, was going to direct it. By summer of 1989, the script was done and going into production. Then United Artists was sold to Qintex Group, and they had a reputation for family entertainment. And it wasn’t a project they were interested in pursuing.

Kirschner: I got a call from the head of the studio, Richard Berger. He said, “David, I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but the company buying UA doesn’t want it. They want to be more like Disney.”

Lafia: We were green-lit and all of a sudden they make this ridiculous pronouncement.

Mancini: Because David was under an overall deal there and they wanted to maintain that relationship, they literally just gave it back to him. And he went out and made a deal with Universal, where we’ve done all the subsequent movies.

Lafia: They basically gave him the franchise for next to nothing. It was an unbelievably stupid thing for them to do.

Kirschner: They were decent guys. I got a call from Spielberg who said, “I know you’re getting calls about this from all over the place, but do me a favor and give Universal the first shot.” Well, of course, Steven.

Child’s Play 2 opened at number one in November 1990.; Child’s Play 3 arrived less than a year later. In 1998, the franchise took a turn into dark comedy with Bride of Chucky, where the maniac finds a love interest.

Vincent: I did the second [movie]. We shot it on the same lot as Back to the Future Part III. I had lunch with Michael J. Fox. It was awesome.

Mancini: John wanted to shoot with a puppet 100 percent of the time, but Ed was around for the whole production.

Gale: Lafia was a complete idiot to me. He did an interview with Fangoria where they asked him if he used me like Holland did, and he said, “No, I hired a midget but never used it.” That’s an offensive word. When Child’s Play 3 came along, I hung up the phone.

Lafia: Ed did a great job, but I wanted to avoid it. He moved too much like a person.

Gale: On Bride of Chucky, they begged and begged, and I finally did it. And then they used the word “midget” [in the movie]. So I refused Seed of Chucky. They filmed in Romania, too, and I don’t fly.

Mancini: It [the line] was wrong, and it's my responsibility.

Gale: One of the reasons they credited me as Chucky’s stunt double was so they could pay me fewer residuals.

Mancini: One reason we used fewer little actors as the series went on is because it’s expensive to build sets 30 percent larger. Each successive movie, we have less and less money. On Curse of Chucky, I used Debbie Carrington to double Chucky—partly because she’s a good friend of mine, and partly because bodies change as people age. Ed physically became too large to play Chucky. It’s just the reality we were facing.

In 2013, Mancini wrote and directed Curse of Chucky, a critically-praised return to Chucky’s more sinister roots.

Mancini: To this day I prefer my concept of the doll being a product of the little kid’s subconscious, but the concept used ended up being gangbusters. Tom was a seasoned writer who made improvements.

Vincent: Starting with the second one, the movies really became Don’s. He came into the forefront.

Mancini: We start production on the next Chucky in Winnipeg in January. It continues the story of Nica, who was introduced in Curse of Chucky. At the end of that movie, she’s taken the rap for the murder of her family and has been institutionalized in an asylum. That’s the basic premise and setting.

Vincent: What’s interesting is that you can tell different types of stories with Chucky. There’s a balance between playfulness and that anger.

Mancini: Even in the movies that aren’t overt comedies, there’s an amusement factor of a doll coming to life. It’s disturbing on a primal level. Dolls are distortions of the human form. They’re humanoid. There’s something inherently off and creepy about them.

Kirschner: Chucky’s become so iconic. When you refer to a kid being awful, you refer to him as Chucky.

Lafia: Chucky has a very unique skill set for a villain, which is that he can be sitting in a room and you don’t think he’s a threat at all. He’s hiding in plain sight.

Mancini: He’s an ambassador for the horror genre, for Halloween, for why we as a culture enjoy this stuff. It’s celebrating the fun of being scared.

Gale: I have the screen-used Chucky hands. No one else does. So if you buy a pair that claim to be worn in the film, you got ripped off.

All images courtesy of Scream Factory.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Lucy Quintanilla
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How Scientists Are Using Plant-Based DNA Barcodes to Bust Counterfeiters
Lucy Quintanilla
Lucy Quintanilla

From high-end guitars to bolts that keep the wings attached to military aircraft, manufacturers are turning toward DNA to catch counterfeit products. A look inside the technology that’s sending crooks to jail in ways Sherlock Holmes only dreamed of.

 

Josh Davis dreamed of touring the United States with his rock band. He never dreamed the FBI would be in the audience.

Through the mid-2000s, the Josh Davis Band played Tucson, Arizona and Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Reno, Nevada and Little Rock, Arkansas; Dallas, Texas and Cheyenne, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana and Tallahassee, Florida. The band earned extra cash selling guitars to pawn shops, hawking brands such as Gibson, Guild, and Martin. They sold each instrument for about $400 and used the cash to pay for gas, hotels, and food.

None of the guitars were authentic.

To fetch a high price, Davis and his bandmates bought cheap, unbranded guitars and painted fake trademarks on each instrument. (Later, they'd etch fake labels with a dremel hand tool, a CNC wood router, and a laser printer.) All they needed to close each deal was a gullible store clerk.

They found dozens. According to court documents, “Davis told [his drummer] that it was the responsibility of the pawn shops to determine if the guitar was fake or not." Over three years, the Josh Davis Band duped pawn shops across 22 states, selling 165 counterfeit guitars for more than $56,000.

The FBI noticed.

In 2014, Davis was tried in federal court in the eastern district of Pennsylvania, not far from the C.F. Martin & Co. guitar factory in the town of Nazareth. Eighty percent of the fake guitars had been falsely labeled as Martins. John M. Gallagher, an Assistant United States Attorney, argued on the company’s behalf: “[I]t was very difficult for us to quantify financially what money Martin Guitars or the other guitar companies are out because of this scam, but they certainly have damage to their reputation. And that’s not fair. I mean, it’s difficult for an American manufacturer to compete in a global economy as it is.”

Gallagher had a point. The Martin Guitar Company was already busy fighting a legal battle over counterfeit products in China. The Josh Davis Band just added insult to injury.

“As we encountered increased counterfeiting not just abroad, but in the United States, we wanted to find a solution,” says Gregory Paul, Martin’s Chief Technology Officer, in an interview. “We needed a technology that’s forensic grade, recognized in judicial systems around the world as definitive proof of authenticity.”

A solution would emerge in England at a Shell gas station.

 
 

The two bandits knew it all. They knew the Loomis van would be packed with cash. They knew the driver would park the van at Preston Old Road to refill an ATM. They knew the guards handling the money would be unarmed.

On a brisk December 2008 morning in Blackburn, England, the two men—dressed in black and their faces obscured by balaclavas—hid in waiting.

As expected, the Loomis van appeared and parked near the ATM. Two unarmed security guards—including Imran Aslam, a 32 year old who'd been working the job for just two months—stepped out. When Aslam revealed a cash box containing £20,000, the bandits pounced.

“Open the door or I’ll f***ing shoot you,” one of them demanded, gripping a Brocock revolver. He gestured to the locked door of the building that was to receive the money delivery. Aslam refused.

“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I can’t let you in.” Aslam gently placed the cash box on the sidewalk at the men’s feet. “That’s all I’ve got. That’s all I can give you."

A Loomis van on a street.
A Loomis van like the one that was robbed in the Blackburn heist.
Alamy

As one thief grabbed the box, the gunman pointed the handgun at Aslam and pulled the trigger three times. Two shots whizzed into the air. A third tore into Aslam’s right thigh.

With Aslam crumpled on the sidewalk, the crooks sprinted away and escaped on a hidden getaway motorcycle. Hours later, they jimmied open the cash box, snatched up the money, and lit the empty container on fire, leaving it to smolder in the woods.

It was not the first ATM attack in the area. Months earlier, 30 miles east in the village of Thornton, the same gang had snatched a loot of £50,000. Police were grasping at dead ends until a gas station attendant noticed that a customer had paid with bills covered in peculiar stains.

It was a dead giveaway. Every Loomis cash box contains a canister of explosive dye. If anybody improperly pries open the container, the dye bursts and the money gets drenched. Suspecting the money might be stolen, the station attendant notified the police. Swabs of the bills were soon mailed to a special forensic laboratory in Stony Brook, New York.

 
 

Stony Brook is a stone's throw east of the Gatsby-esque mansions of Long Island's Gold Coast. It's a college town strung with winding suburban lanes, harborside nature preserves, and a yacht club.

It’s also the heart of America’s “DNA corridor.”

Seventeen miles west sits Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where James Watson first publicly described the double helix structure of DNA. Fourteen miles east is Brookhaven National Laboratory, where scientists discovered the muon-induced neutron, Maglev technology, and point DNA mutations. Stony Brook itself is command central for a biotechnology company called Applied DNA Sciences. “This area probably has the highest density of DNA scientists in the world,” James Hayward, the company’s chairman, president, & CEO, tells Mental Floss.

Stony Brook, NY
Stony Brook, New York
John Feinberg, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Applied DNA Sciences makes, tags, and tests DNA. The company has what Hayward calls “without a doubt, one of the world’s largest capacities to manufacture DNA.” One of their products, called SigNature DNA, can be used as a “molecular barcode” that can track products and even people. It can be found in Loomis cash boxes across the United Kingdom.

In fact, the exploding dye in each Loomis box holds a unique strain of DNA created specifically for that individual container. It is invisible and impossible to scrub clean. So when forensic scientists at Applied DNA tested the suspicious bills from the English gas station, they were able to pinpoint their exact origins—the cash box stolen from Blackburn.

By New Year's Day, five conspirators, including the ATM heist's gunman, Dean Farrell, and the group's ringleader, the ironically named Colin McCash, would be arrested. (Their victim, Aslam, would live to see them in court.) Since then, the same DNA technology has been used in more than 200 similar ATM heists. All of them have led to a conviction.

It was at the time of the Blackburn bust that the Martin Guitar Company decided to sign a contract with Applied DNA Sciences. “We were aware of the work Applied DNA was doing in the UK when we began talking to them,” Gregory Paul says. “Those cases certainly underscored the value of doing it.”

Today, just like the Loomis cash boxes, more than 750,000 Martin guitars are marked with a unique invisible DNA barcode created in Stony Brook. They're all part of an expanding effort to stop what is globally a $1.7 trillion problem—counterfeiting.

 
 

Step into the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and you’ll see why the company goes through such lengths to protect the identity of each of its instruments. The factory floor buzzes and clangs with the sounds of woodworkers wielding chisels, lathes, sanders, and saws. Many musicians consider Martin the gold standard of acoustic guitars because of this handiwork.

The manufacturing process is involved and time-consuming. First, the wood is air dried, roasted in a kiln, and rested in a giant acclimating room for a year. (Some cuts are so rare that they must be locked in a cage.) The wood is cut with band saws and shaped by hand with bending irons. The braces inside the instrument—which prevent the guitar from collapsing on itself—are scalloped with paring knives, files, and scrapers. When workers glue the guitar, they clamp it with clothespins.

Martin clothespins
Paul Goodman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The glossing process, which gives the instrument its sheen, is as dazzling as it is exhausting. Workers apply a stain, a vinyl seal coat, a filler coat, and a second vinyl seal coat. That’s followed by a light scuffing, three coats of lacquer, some sanding, three more coats of lacquer, more sanding, a final touch-up with a brush, a glaze of lacquer, a final sanding, a polish with a buffing robot, and then one last hand polish with a buffing bonnet made of lamb’s wool.

About 560 people work here. They take pride in their work—it can take months to manufacture a guitar. But for counterfeiters, it can take just a few hours.

Musical instruments may not be the first thing that pops to mind when people imagine counterfeiting—the word conjures grifters on Canal Street hawking fake Rolexes out of trench coats—but bootlegged musical instruments are a big problem. Martin knows this firsthand. In China, where copyright is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, a guitar-maker with no affiliation with the company once registered Martin's logo, technically earning the legal right to manufacture their own “Martin” guitars. “A Chinese national has hijacked our brand and is making, unfortunately, poorly made copies of Martin guitars with my family's name on them,” Chris Martin IV, the company’s CEO, announced.

It's not just Martin. In 2010, a raid on a Chinese factory turned up 100,000 packages of fake D’Addario guitar strings. (D’Addario estimates that nearly 70 percent of the string sets sold under its name in China are fake. In 2010, the company coughed up $750,000 to fund anti-counterfeiting activities.) Four years later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection discovered a shipment of 185 guitars coming from China that suspiciously bore “Made in USA” labels. The stash of fake Gibson, Les Paul, Paul Reed Smith, and Martin guitars could have screwed consumers out of more than $1 million.

The problem of counterfeit instruments isn't just about protecting the bank accounts of companies and their consumers. "There's an element of consumer safety, too," Gregory Paul explains. "As much as guitars get counterfeited, guitar strings are counterfeited ten times as much. And those products need to possess a certain tensile strength when tuning." A cheaply-made guitar string can be dangerous; it risks snapping and injuring the performer.

Inside the Martin Guitar Factory
Paul Goodman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

None of this is new. The old fake label switcheroo has been the fraudster's go-to for centuries. The composer Tomaso Antonio Vitali was complaining about it back in 1685 after he bought a phony violin:

"[T]his violin bore the label of Nicolò Amati, a maker of great repute in his profession. Your petitioner has, however, discovered that the said violin was falsely labelled, he having found underneath the label one of Francesco Ruggieri, called 'Il Pero,' a maker of much less repute, whose violins at the utmost do not realize more than three pistoles. Your petitioner has consequently been deceived by the false label."

What's new is the technology available to counterfeiters today: While faking the label of an instrument has always been relatively easy, it's been historically difficult to counterfeit the tone unique to a particular brand or model. That's changing, and it has manufacturers concerned.

All it takes to make a convincing fake is fungi. In 2009, Dr. Francis Schwarze, of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, hired a luthier to make a violin from wood infected with Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes, fungi known to uniquely degrade woody cell walls. When the fungal violin was tested against two 1711 Stradivarius violins, a jury of experts was asked to identify which was which; 63 percent believed the fungus-treated instrument had been made by Stradivarius.

A less earthy technique called torrefaction—a process that involves heating wood, cooling it, heating it again, and cooling it again—delivers similar results and is popular with mainstream musical instrument manufacturers. The cycle causes volatile oils, sugars, and resins to evacuate the wood, giving a brand-new instrument a rich tone reminiscent of a decades-old guitar.

Manufacturers such as Yamaha, Collings, Taylor, and Martin have all experimented with torrefaction. And while such technologies have improved the sound of new guitars, they've also fallen into the hands of counterfeiters—making it more difficult for unwitting consumers to pinpoint fraudulent products.

A microscopic barcode made of DNA could change that.

 
 

Think of DNA not as the building blocks of life, but as Mother Nature's attempt at writing code. Instead of using the dots and dashes of Morse code or the ones and zeroes of binary, DNA uses nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C).

The arrangement of those nucleotides is what differentiates your boss from a bonobo. In the 1970s, shortly after scientists learned how to synthesize arbitrary stretches of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, experts realized that they could also encode messages with DNA in the same way that computer programmers did with ones and zeroes. (In the late 1970s, some scientists went so far to hypothesize that the DNA of viruses might contain messages from extraterrestrials; attempts to decode viral DNA found no alien fanmail.)

In 1988, Joe Davis, an artist-in-residence of sorts at MIT, became the first person to encode a message in DNA. Davis synthesized a strand of DNA—CCCCCCAACGCGCGCGCT—that, when decrypted by a computer program, visually resembled the ancient Germanic Runic figure for the female earth. The work, called Microvenus, was inserted into E. coli and reduplicated millions of times.

(We should note that this was a run-of-the-mill experiment for Davis, who is essentially a magnetic mad scientist with a penchant for performance art. He once built an aircraft powered by frog legs and concocted ways to make silkworms spin gold; a memorial he designed for the victims of Hurricane Katrina bottles up lightning and angrily redirects it back at the clouds.)

Writing about Microvenus in Arts Journal, Davis explained that, “unless it is purposefully destroyed, it could potentially survive for a period that is considerably longer than the projected lifespan of humanity itself.”

Twenty-four years later, George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University and a friend of Davis’s, converted his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves—about 53,426 words, 11 jpg images, and a line of JavaScript—into DNA. Like Davis, he reduplicated the DNA until he had produced 70 billion copies (making him, in a twisted way, the most published author on earth). A DNA sequencer later reassembled his book, word for word, with hardly a typo.

These biological party tricks may foreshadow the future of data storage, a world where all of our data is stored as As, Ts, Cs, and Gs. “Think of your word document stored on your laptop," explains James Hayward, Applied DNA’s president. "It’s just a lineal series of code, each bit with only two options: a zero or a one. But in DNA, each bit has four options.” Those four options mean that DNA can hold significantly larger amounts of information in a significantly smaller space. If you encoded all the information the planet produces each year into DNA, you could hold it in the palm of your hand.

In fact, Joe Davis has tinkered with that exact concept. He plans to encode all of Wikipedia into DNA, insert it into the genome of a 4000-year-old strain of apple, and plant his own Garden of Eden, growing "Trees of Knowledge" that will literally contain the world’s wisdom. (Well, Wikipedia's version of it.)

 
 

The same principles that enable Davis and Church to insert Runic art and books into DNA allow researchers at Applied DNA Sciences to create barcodes for Martin Guitar. It's a relatively simple concept: Whereas normal barcodes identify a product with a unique pattern of numbers, these barcodes use a unique sequence of nucleotides.

To do that, scientists first isolate a strand of plant DNA. They splice it, kick out any functional genetic information, shuffle the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs into a one-of-a-kind pattern, and stitch it back together. Then they make millions of copies of that strand, which are applied to the body and strings of Martin guitars.

The finished DNA barcode is genetically inert. It usually ranges from 100 to nearly 200 base pairs, long enough to create an unfathomably complicated sequence but short enough that, were it injected into a living human cell, nothing would happen: Ingesting a DNA barcode is no more dangerous than eating an Oreo. (It may even be healthier.)

"It is important to recognize that DNA is an ordinary component of food. You probably ate nearly a gram of it yesterday, which came from the DNA inside all plant and meat cells," explains MeiLin Wan, VP, Textile Sales at Applied DNA Sciences. "But because DNA is degraded down to its building blocks (A,T,C,G) before it has any chance of being taken up into the body (as ordinary nutrition) people do not become modified with plant or animal genes when we eat them … Thus, when used as a molecular bar code, DNA is as safe as food in that regard."

And while the DNA synthesized here is physically small, the sequence encoded within is substantially longer than any other barcode on the planet. “If it were a barcode, it’d be as long as your arm,” Dr. Michael Hogan, VP of Life Sciences at Applied DNA, said in a video.

And it's used for more than just musical instruments and cash boxes. These DNA barcodes are stamped onto pills, money, even vehicles. At least 10,000 high-end German cars possess a unique DNA stamp. Sweden’s largest electricity provider coats its copper supply in DNA barcodes, a move that has helped reduce theft of copper-coated wire by 85 percent. Pharmaceutical companies print DNA barcodes onto capsules and tablets to weed out dangerous fake drugs that may have slipped into the supply chain.

The Pentagon uses it too. When Vice Admiral Edward M. Straw was asked what kept him awake at night, he said nothing of IEDs or enemy combatants; he answered, “Aircraft fasteners. Nuts and bolts that hold components onto airplanes, such as wings. Wing bolts.” That's because the U.S. military’s spare parts system is rumored to contain approximately 1 million counterfeit parts—inferior nuts, bolts, and fasteners that could become a liability on the battlefield. Today, the Air Force uses DNA barcodes to ensure that junky hardware, which could wiggle or snap during flight, never sees an aircraft.

As for Martin, when I asked Gregory Paul where and how the DNA was applied onto the company's guitars, he just chuckled. "Yes. It is applied! That's all I can get into."

To see how it worked, I would have to drive to Stony Brook.

 
 

Wandering the halls of the Long Island High Technology Incubator is like peeking into the future’s window. Inside a squat set of buildings on the eastern campus of Stony Brook University, there’s a company called ImmunoMatrix, which aims to make vaccination needles obsolete; there's Vascular Simulations, which manufactures human dummies that have functioning cardiovascular systems; and there’s Applied DNA Sciences.

I wasn’t granted access to the laboratory where DNA is synthesized—the location is apparently secret, and visitors aren’t permitted because of the contamination risk—but I was permitted inside one of Applied DNA Sciences' forensic laboratories.

Only a small number of people have the clearances to enter the forensic lab here, and, of those, even fewer have access to the keys to the evidence locker. The room is locked: white walls, workstations, and a few scientists in lab coats handling equipment with names I dared not try to pronounce.

Textile Lab
The textile lab at Applied DNA Science.
Courtesy Applied DNA Science

I had imagined a room of objects waiting to be tested, guitars and airplane bolts and wads of cash. But to my surprise, all I see are small swatches of fabric. I'm told that whenever a company like Martin is testing the authenticity of a product, they simply need to swab the instrument. “There’s no way to cheat,” says Wan. “Because if there’s one molecule of our DNA, we will find it.”

Wan gets visibly excited when she talks about stopping fraud. She explains that approximately 15 percent of the goods traded around the globe are phony. Counterfeiting costs American businesses more than $200 billion a year, and the problem touches every industry. Zippo, for example, makes 12 million lighters every year, but counterfeiters match their output. Even your kitchen cabinets are unsafe: It's estimated that 50 percent of extra virgin olive oils in America are, in fact, impure. (Blame the Mafia.)

“People say this isn’t life or death, nobody is going to die from counterfeit products,” Wan says. “But this accumulated cheating casts a culture of doubt, it makes consumers and companies wonder: Am I getting ripped off? Because if you’re going to spend $500 on a Martin guitar instead of $50 on a generic instrument, then every component of that guitar should be made by Martin. Period.”

Here forensic scientists can find out who is telling the truth.

In the lab, the methods are similar to what you’d see on CSI, minus the dramatic music. Many of the scientists here previously worked in medical examiner's offices. “Everything we do is consistent with what you’d do in a human identification laboratory,” explains Dr. Ila Lansky, Director of Forensics.

To properly identify the DNA, samples from the swab in question must be multiplied, so they're ferried to an instrument called a thermal cycler. (It's basically a molecular photocopier: The DNA is heated. Then a heat-resistant enzyme called Polymerase—first discovered in the thermal springs of Yellowstone National Park—is added. When the DNA is heated once more, the Polymerase helps double the number of DNA strands.) Repeated over and over, the machine can create millions of testable samples very quickly.

The birthplace of polymerase
The birthplace of polymerase: the hot springs of Yellowstone.
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

This freshly-copied batch of DNA is placed in a refrigerator-sized machine called a 3500 Genetic Analyzer, a fluorescence-based instrument that determines the length of the DNA and the sequence of its As, Cs, Ts, and Gs. Within 20 to 120 minutes, the results appear on a computer screen in the form of a cragged graph, with wobbly peaks and valleys.

“The DNA really can’t be found unless you know what you’re looking for,” Lansky explains. “And we’re the only ones who know what to look for.”

On the day I visited, the team wasn't analyzing guitars. Instead, they were looking at cotton samples that claimed to be 100 percent pure extra-long staple, or ELS. I'm told the cotton supply chain is messy: A puffball may grow in California, be ginned in Arkansas, be woven in India, be dyed in Egypt, and then return to multiple warehouses in the United States for distribution. Each step is an opportunity for the “100 percent cotton” to become corrupted. (With sometimes horrifying results: In 2014, Italian police seized more than a million products from a company claiming to make “100 percent cashmere.” The products contained rat fur.)

Wan stands before the computer and points to the graph. To me, it’s just squiggles. She might as well have been showing me the latest stock market results. But to her eyes, it’s a damning fingerprint: She compares the contours to the peaks and valleys expected of 100 percent pure cotton. The lines don’t match.

Turns out, it's less than 80 percent ELS cotton—evidence that somebody adulterated the sample somewhere along the supply chain.

Wan smirks and says, “And that's the reason we like to say: DNA is truth."

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