Genetic identification helps convict timber thieves

10 March 2016

Illegal logging is a significant problem across the world, contributing to the destruction of the world’s forests and also affecting a big proportion of the world’s trade in forest products.

Recently University of Adelaide conservation biologist Professor Andrew Lowe led a team of experts in a case where four defendants pleaded guilty for stealing Bigleaf maple wood from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Professor Andrew Lowe is also the chief scientific officer of Double Helix Tracking Technologies - a Bioknowledge start-up headquartered in Singapore that uses DNA tools to eliminate illegally logged timber from global supply chains.

Wood can have a very high market value, particularly wood from trees used to make musical instruments.  Wood from a single tree can be worth $1,000, in the case of Big Leaf Maple it can be as much as $100,000. 

Prosecuting illegal loggers without a method to definitely link stolen wood to a given owner can be difficult. Genetic identification of wood provides a means to do this. DNA profiling and tracking of timber has proved to be powerful in curbing this illegal activity and supporting genuine forest industries. Because each tree has a unique genetic fingerprint it makes it possible to match pieces of sawn wood with the stumps of the trees from which they were cut.

Researchers developed DNA markers for the Bigleaf maple population, which were used to create the first DNA profiling reference database for the species. AGRF worked with Professor Lowe’s team to develop a custom SNP identification- the panel includes about 200 SNP markers, giving it enormous discriminatory power. To put it into perspective, a similar panel of about 40 SNPs can uniquely identify a human. 

The DNA markers that were developed for this study have been peer-reviewed and were recently published in the journal Conservation Genetic Resources.

Image creadit: Jsayre64