DNA profiling technique has helped the U.S. government to convict timber thieves involved in a landmark case.

The technique was developed by the forest DNA forensics team at the University of Adelaide in Australia, who cannot be any more prouder.

"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," says researcher Eleanor Dormontt, Ph.D.

Convicted!

Four suspects pleaded guilty for illegally taking away Bigleaf maple wood in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. What made the case monumental is the fact that it is the first instance the U.S. government summoned a party for unlawful interstate commerce of wooden goods under the Lacey Act.

The Lacey Act was created in 1900 to prosecute illegal traffickers of wildlife materials. In 2008, the said law was amended to include plants and plant products such as timber and paper.

Developing DNA Key Markers

The DNA evidence that the Australian researchers came up with was one of the key factors that helped convincing the court to rule against the timber thieves.

The scientists from the university's Environment Institute developed the method by creating DNA markers for the Bigleaf maple.

They collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service, World Resources Institute and timber-monitoring experts from the Double Helix Tracking Technologies. Together, these teams created the world's first DNA profiling resource index for the said wood species.

Their work is recognized to be the only technique that has been verified for court use.

How Does It Work?

Humans each has a totally unique set of fingerprints, which is used as proof of identification or perhaps validating an identity.

Trees have this unique characteristic too. The scientists used this concept to match bits of cut wood with the end piece of the trees where the wood originated.

Such method may also help consumers to confirm if the wood they are buying was gathered under legal procedures, says Professor Andrew Lowe, who is also the chair of the university's Conservation Biology.

According to their records, the chance of having two trees with the same DNA profile is about one in 428 sextillion. For comparison, the entire universe is said to have approximately 70 sextillion stars.

Timber Theft Problem

Theft of Bigleaf maple has been a continuous public problem in the Pacific Northwest. This is because of the potential profits that different sectors may reap from the wood products. In fact, a log, when milled, may cost more than $100,000.

Illegal logging is a global problem that contributes to the devastation of forests and vulnerable human populations. Tree profiling may offer significant help to halt illegal logging and assist lawful forest sectors.

The DNA indicators created and used by the team was published in the journal Conservation Genetics Resources.

Photo: Miguel Vieira | Flickr

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