Any customs officer coming across a stack of elephant tusks on a routine inspection is going to know something’s very wrong. Now imagine the same official, opening a container and finding a load of timber – how can they tell if it’s been legally harvested and from what sort of wood?
A tree growing in a forest, hung with identifying flowers, fruit and leaves, is a relatively easy thing to name. A plank of wood is not – but DNA sequencing technology is about to change that.
Earlier this year a new DNA profiling test for Bigleaf maple tree species, devised by a research team from University of Adelaide, was crucial in a landmark timber theft conviction of four people in a US court.
The team’s manager, Dr Eleanor Dormontt, has just written the first UN guidelines on DNA forensic identification of timber, which will be released this month. She says genetics is leading a new global push to tackle the scourge of illegal logging.
This highly lucrative crime has catastrophic environmental impacts but no simple remedy: in 2012, Interpol and the UN estimated that around 100m cubic metres of timber, worth up to $US100 billion, was being illegally harvested each year worldwide by thieves involved in corruption, money laundering and fraud.
What makes it so appealing for crime networks is how diabolically hard it can be for law enforcement officials to identify their spoils, let alone be specific about a timber load’s origins.
Working on four small offcuts from a mill near where the stolen Bigleaf maple trees were cut down in Washington State’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Dormontt and colleagues developed a DNA profile that could not only reveal the genus, species and provenance of the wood, but, using the unique DNA fingerprint of each tree, could match the offcuts to individual stumps.
While other approaches, such as chemical analysis, can tackle some of those questions, genetics can answer them all.
By developing a set of genetic markers using nearly 400 maple samples gathered from where the theft occurred as well as other American forests, Dormontt’s team have produced a test – the first of its kind accredited for use in court proceedings - which can now be wielded quickly and cheaply elsewhere.
What’s more, it’s mind-blowingly precise. “The chance of finding two different wild Bigleaf Maple trees which show a genetic match using our test is about the same chance as winning a raffle where the number of tickets is 200 billion times the number of humans that have ever lived,” says Dormontt.
Dormontt and others have begun building a database of DNA profiles for other tree species; she hopes DNA fingerprinting will also one day be embedded in supply chains so consumers can buy timber knowing it’s genetically verified.
In the meantime, the team has already been asked for help in another US case - though when law enforcement officers arrived to seize the suspect timber, the offender confessed on the spot.
“I like to think,” says Dormontt, “he’d read all about the first case and knew he didn’t stand a chance.”