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GlobalA new weapon in the fight against illegal logging


DNA Barcoding of tropical woods

Dirk Steinke

Illegal logging is on the increase world wide with a focus on rare and protected tree species. Criminal gangs fell the trees to satisfy an international black market for the wood. It is a lucrative business for the loggers, e.g. the wood for a single violin bow is worth several thousand dollars. Just recently the Brazilian police confiscated several violins which are believed to be made from brazilwood (Caesalpinia echinata) an endangered tree that gave Brazil its name.

Gibson Guitar Corp, which makes some of the world’s most prized guitars, agreed on August 6 to pay a $300,000 penalty after it admitted to possible illegal purchases of ebony from Madagascar.

Unfortunately, mislabelling, lying about origin or substituting one type of wood for another have become common practices in the timber trade. Interpol recently estimated that illegal logging alone causes losses in assets and revenue in excess of 30 Billion Dollar annually.

For a long time the only instruments in the fight against trade in illegal timber were regulations and preventive measures, which have not met with much success. Recently the focus shifted towards using the criminal justice system and law enforcement techniques. Therefore, it was about time to equip law enforcement authorities with a tool that provides conclusive evidence in such cases - DNA Barcoding.

DNA Barcoding is capable to prove that seized wood or wood products are from protected species and there is great interest to develop a barcode reference library of plants that are protected from international trade. Moreover, industry officials say that rapid advances and plunging costs for DNA testing of timber now make it commercially viable for companies trying to meet new regulations in the United States and Europe against such practices.

Two examples demonstrate that the technology reached a point where it could be used on a routine base and even successfully transferred into a business model.

A method of extracting DNA taken from a piece of wood was refined at Andrew Lowe's laboratory at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. They were able to extract degraded DNA from decades-old wood and get accurate results. Lowe is also the chief scientific officer at Double Helix Tracking Technologies, a Singapore based company that has commercialised the DNA testing for wood, with most testing done at the lab in Adelaide. The new method and recently implemented laws in the U.S. and Europe led to an increase in business for Double Helix and their ultimate goal is to make DNA testing so cheap that all companies will do it.

DNA testing was already having an impact in prosecutions, said Shelley Gardner, illegal logging programme coordinator for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. “Any time we’ve gone to the point where we got to court, they plea-bargained because the DNA was already such a deterrent. And these are just small cases, so when you start talking about real trade, I think that could have a big impact,” she said in an interview with Reuters.

While DNA collected from people and animals has revolutionised police investigations worldwide, obtaining and identifying genetic material from plants to provide hard evidence to help convict criminals seems more complex. This brought Renato Paranaiba, a forensics expert with the Brazilian Federal Police, all the way to Edinburgh, Scotland to learn plant DNA extraction techniques in the lab of Pete Hollingsworth at the Edinburgh Royal ­Botanic Garden. He wants to extend his expertise to put an end to illegal logging in the Amazonian rainforest. "I am used to working with bones more than plants, but over the past few years there has been a move to combat environmental crime here, focused on the Amazonian regions," he said in an interview with The Scotsman. "Our government wants to do more to combat this crime and we have permanent environmental crime operations now in Brazil but although human and animal DNA is established in our police work we know little about plant DNA, so this is all new for me. We want to join the vanguard and this lab at the Botanics is the most respected around the world."

The hope is that the collaboration of enforcement institutions, business, and scientists will help create a barcode library for endangered plant species.


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