Timber theft could be stamped out by new genetic profiling discovery

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Timber investors will be interested to learn that a landmark discovery and court case have paved the way to stamp out one of the sector’s biggest threats to income – timber theft.

The US Government has been able to convict timber thieves using a new technique developed by the forest DNA forensics team at Australia’s University of Adelaide. Published in the journal Conservation Genetics Resources, the DNA profiling technique has helped the Government to crack down on one of the biggest problems in the timber sector and it looks set to pave the way for future prevention of crimes of this type.

Four suspects pleaded guilty for stealing Bigleaf maple wood in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. This marked the first instance in which the US Government was able to bring individuals to court for “unlawful interstate commerce of wooden goods” under the Lacey Act, Tech Times reported. The Lacey Act, which was rolled out in 1900 in order to bring to justice illegal traffickers of wildlife materials, was changed in 2008 to include plant products, which comprise paper and timber.

Researcher Eleanor Dormontt, Ph.D, from the University of Adelaide, told the publication: “This project has been a fantastic team effort here at Adelaide and we are all really proud that our work has helped secure such a landmark conviction.”

The Adelaide researchers, who work at the university’s Environment Institute, worked to develop the method by creating a series of DNA markers for the Bigleaf maple tree species.

Working alongside the US Forest Service, the World Resources Institute and a series of timber-monitoring experts from the Double Helix Tracking Technologies, the researchers were able to come up with the first DNA profiling resource index for the Bigleaf maple that the world has seen.

Their findings are now the sole technique that has been verified for use in court cases, it has been confirmed. Each tree has a unique characteristic, much like every human has a unique set of fingerprints which allows for their identity to be validated.

The researchers made use of this concept in order to match up pieces of wood that had been cut with the end piece of the trees where the wood first originated. The research team found that the chances of two trees sharing the exact same DNA profile is minute. “Our database indicates that, with these markers, the likelihood of two trees having the same DNA profile is as low as one in 428 sextillion; there are thought to be approximately 70 sextillion stars in the universe, said professor Andrew Lowe, the chair of Adelaide University’s Conservation Biology and Chief Scientific Officer of Double Helix.

He went on to add that this method may also allow timber buyers to tell whether or not the wood they are buying was gathered legally and sustainably.

The Pacific Northwest has long suffered the fall-outs resulting from thefts of the Bigleaf maple and efforts have been made to capture individuals responsible in the past to no avail – which is why this new DNA profiling is such a step forward for the timber industry. Profits have been shattered as a result of timber theft, meaning that many sectors involved in the timber industry, from the mills to the end purchasers and investors, will suffer.

Illegal logging is also an issue on a global scale as it contributes significantly to the devastation and destruction of forests and the human populations that depend on the land for their livelihoods. The Adelaide University team’s new tree profiling looks set to offer a key step towards stamping out illegal logging and boosting lawful forest sectors, therefore helping profits and investors along every step of the supply chain.

GWD Forestry spokesman, James Barrett, said: “Any technological development that allow for timber crimes to be stamped out is a positive for every step of the timber sector’s supply chain and a major boost for investors in the arena. Timber crime has long been a serious global issue and the research team from the University of Adelaide must be praised for developing the DNA profiling which will bring criminals to justice and lower the chances of destruction of the world’s precious forests and those that depend on them.”

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