THE NETHERLANDS - In an effort to help authorities crack down on illegally traded lumber, scientists have begun analyzing regional differences in the DNA of wood - helping them determine the birthplace of the original tree within 10 miles.
Illegal logging is a serious problem in the United States, but potentially even a bigger problem in Europe, with an estimated $8 to $12 billion in lost revenue annually.
"By undermining sustainable forest management, illegal loggers are damaging natural ecosystems," said Professor Pieter Zuidema, Wageningen University in the Netherlands. "If these forests degrade, they will release CO2 into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change."
Despite 2004 regulations prohibiting illegally logged timber, actually cracking down on its trade is difficult. At the moment, customs officers still rely on paper trails to identify imported timber. These documents can be forged by criminals, or bought illegally from corrupt officials in the territories through which contraband timber is smuggled.
Zuidema looked through the DNA of Tali, a tropical tree found throughout Africa. Each region evolves its own familial traits and by measuring mutations in tree DNA, Zuidema can trace back Tali timber to its geographic origins. These records make it possible to verify the degree to which the DNA of timber reaching border controls is related to the specimens he sampled in the wild.