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DNA and beyond: The challenges of identifying wood and addressing illegal timber products

  • Extracting DNA from processed timber products is challenging due to the small amount of degraded DNA remaining in the wood.
  • For many identification technologies, it’s paramount that robust reference databases be built before analysis tools can be made useful.
  • Achieving transparency of wood supply chains requires analysis of product documentation and the strategic deployment of a suite of investigative technologies.

Meaghan Parker-Forney has spent her career using DNA to learn about organisms of all shapes, sizes and species. As an undergraduate at UCSC, Meaghan got hooked on conservation genetics while working for postdocs in the lab of Michael Soulé, widely considered the father of conservation biology. Then, during her master’s program, she veered into the field of evolution and studied the population genetics and phylogenetics of spadefoot toads, analyzing how climatic events and range shifts impacted gene flow throughout US populations. “To attempt to resolve the evolutionary history of a species, you have to look at the whole picture, such as life history traits along with environmental factors,” she says. Now the technology associate for the World Resources Institute’s Forest Legality Team, Parker applies her scientific and technological expertise to help combat illegal logging.

WildTech spoke with Parker about the technological and systemic hurdles facing the logging industry, her previous work with the Moorea Biocode Project and the Barcode of Wildlife Project and WRI’s efforts to promote supply chain transparency.

Meaghan Parker-Forney helps WRI's Forest Legality Team evaluate technologies to combat illegal logging. Image via WRI.
Meaghan Parker-Forney helps WRI’s Forest Legality Team evaluate technologies to combat illegal logging. Image via WRI.

Tell us about your work with the Moorea Biocode Project and the Barcode of Wildlife Project.

When I got the job offer to work with the Smithsonian Institution, it was one of those “pinch me” moments — somewhere I’d wanted to work my entire life. And I was going to work on coolest project ever: the Moorea Biocode Project. Under the director, Chris Meyer, I was the lead laboratory analyst on the project. Many different taxa teams collected more than 50,000 specimens in four years, and for those 50,000, I ran much of the genetic work myself. It was a pretty big feat.

We had support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to use Moorea, a small island off of Tahiti, as a test case to catalog every non-microbial marine and terrestrial organism living on and around the island of Moorea. And, for the most part, we did just that. Additionally, we found thousands of species totally new to science. It was a really powerful project, and they’re still publishing new studies using the data that was collected during the project.

The second Smithsonian project that I was given the opportunity to be involved with was the Barcode of Wildlife Project under Dr. David Schindel, director of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL). The Barcode of Wildlife project, funded through a Google Global Impact Award, set out to demonstrate how the use of DNA barcoding could effectively be used in investigations and prosecutions of wildlife crimes.

We partnered with five different countries that historically have struggled to combat the trafficking of wildlife across their borders. We got buy-in from universities, research institutions, enforcement agents and government officials in Kenya, South Africa, Mexico and Nepal (and, I think, they now have participation from Ecuador). My main objectives were to assist in-country institutions in setting up DNA barcoding laboratories and training resident scientists in DNA barcoding best practices to aid them in creating a quick, easy and robust pipeline in which to identify suspicious material crossing their borders, with the overarching goal of coordinating all stakeholders (enforcement, customs, prosecutor and scientists) to work together to catch and prosecute criminals involved in wildlife trafficking.

So we spent a couple weeks in Kenya, South Africa and Mexico (The team went on to train participating scientists in Nepal) training researchers in sample and data collection. We built capacity in country so that the resident researchers could carry out all of the sampling and analysis on their end.

Could DNA technology show that a new floor came from this Illegal logging operation in Borneo? Photo by Rhett Butler.

What are you doing now at World Resources Institute?

The Forest Legality Team was looking for someone with expertise in working with different technologies, specifically in DNA analysis and database management, to help them create a strategy to use applicable technologies to combat illegal logging. Our team has quite a breadth of education from policy to forestry, science and law, but it’s difficult as an NGO to fund technology projects without expertise in the field you may be looking to fund. So I was hired on to help our team resolve some of the questions around which technologies are appropriate with regard to wood identification and where in the supply chain they might be most useful.

The analysis of DNA is one of the technologies currently being applied in the timber industry. Extracting DNA from plants and animals is not difficult to do — the Smithsonian teaches high-schoolers how to do it. But wood that’s been processed, heated and/or dried has very little DNA remaining, and what remains is often highly degraded, so obtaining enough high-quality DNA to run analyses on timber products such as furniture flooring is actually really challenging.

There are more than a few different technologies that are showing promise in dealing with questions of wood identification. Though DNA analysis is one of them, it’s not nearly as far along as the work that has been done on plant and animal tissue — with respect to the thousands of reference databases for so many plant and animal species that already exist. In the case of timber, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, and the first place to start is the building of needed reference databases for highly valuable, highly traded endangered tree species.

When you’re talking about plant and animal DNA labs, they’re all over the world: researchers, labs and institutions are constantly pumping genetic/genomic data out on countless species, and much of this data gets published to GenBank, the NIH’s free, public, online repository for genetic/genomic data.

It’s different in the timber industry, because you really only have a handful of researchers that have the expertise in being able to obtain DNA out of processed wood products. It’s just not as far along as the flora and fauna world when you’re talking about how DNA analysis can be used in the context of illegal logging and the conservation of endangered tree species.

Because there is so little genetic material left in processed wood, it can be challenging to extract DNA. Researchers, NGOs and officials who want to identify illegal wood products (like the illegally harvested boards in this photo from Borneo) face plenty of obstacles. Photo by Rhett Butler.

So how do you see these DNA technologies fitting in with some of the other tools people read about, such as fiber analysis or stable isotope analysis? 

With regard to timber, and for all of these technologies, you have to have reference databases — there’s no way around this. Otherwise, you don’t have a comparative framework. So it doesn’t matter if you have a picture of the wood’s cell structure, or if you you’ve obtained stable isotope readings for a wood product, or if you’ve obtained a chemical signature for a wood product — without a reference database for each technology to compare your sample to, your analysis is uninformative. You have to have an appropriate, robust reference database where you can compare your sample to other similar samples. It takes a lot of money and a lot of time to build these types of reference databases, and I think that’s now where most of us feel stuck.

We are working closely with UNODC, Interpol, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and one of the biggest hurdles we face is building these reference databases. I think WRI and other NGOs can play a significant role here as neutral parties who have or can leverage funding to aid in the development of these databases if that’s what we want to do with our money. Because although it would be great if the governments jumped in and started to put money toward building these databases, I just don’t think there’s a lot of international coordination regarding strategy on how best to move forward. Without the inherent understanding of how these technologies work, people can be a bit short-sighted, thinking, “I was told I could use DNA to test my products, where can I send my material to start testing?”  The reality is that for most species of interest it’s just not that simple, and much of the technology is just not there yet. There’s a big monetary investment that needs to be made in order to first develop the appropriate reference databases.

But all of these technologies have an incredible promise going forward once the appropriate databases are built.

What’s an alternative technology you like?

Dr. Ed Espinoza, deputy laboratory director at the USFWS Forensics Laboratory, has been analyzing the chemical signature of pigmented woods,  and his work is really exciting. He’s been able to sample and delineate species of Dalbergia pretty easily using a unique type of high-tech mass spectrometer. And it’s easy, cheap and nondestructive; the natural pigments and other chemicals found in the wood give each species a unique signature.

But I should back up and say that none of these techniques are new per se; they’re just newly being applied to timber. These technologies have been vetted and been around for a long time, but they’ve been mostly used on other commodities, like agriculture and cigarettes. When I visited Dr. Espinoza’s lab in September, he said, “Let me see a dollar bill,” and he stuck the dollar bill in the DART-TOF Mass Spec to analyze the chemicals found on the bill, and he said, “Look at that peak, that’s the chemical structure of cocaine. This is because every single dollar bill that goes through the U.S. is contaminated with cocaine.” There’s that much drug money working through the system that it doesn’t matter who you are: Everybody has cocaine on their bills. So they’re using this technology for drug trafficking and that kind of stuff. That’s where it’s very important to remember that the databases have to be built first. It’s not that the technology is failing or not up to par; it’s that many of the reference databases have yet to be developed for the species of tree that we’re interested in testing.

By establishing supply-chain transparency, Meaghan Parker-Forney says, it becomes easier to flag irregularities, which can then be evaluated using DNA techniques or other technologies. Photo by Rhett Butler.

For conservationists out in the field or government agencies that are trying to do something about illegal timber products, are their hands tied right now — technologically speaking — as we wait for the databases to come on board?

I guess you could say their hands are somewhat tied at the moment. I think it’s really more of an international collaboration that needs to take place, and it’s all the way through the supply chain. And, again, I think it’s really easy to think that one of these technologies is going to be the silver bullet, and it’s not.

A sustainability manager at a big box retail store was really excited about vetting his supply chain and recently asked me, “When and where can we start using DNA analysis to test our wood products?” and I said, “Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. What you need to start with is your suppliers and begin vetting the documentation that is coming through your suppliers. Figure out exactly where your material is being sourced, and work through the documentation on the supply side. If you see red flags, then you can start talking about testing material.” I think this is the kind of approach that needs to happen. We’re working with different information platforms to  capture that type of non-geospatial information, tracking the money and following the players that we know are likely bad players that would be involved in illegal trafficking of wood.

There’s plenty of public documentation out there that, when found and inspected carefully, clearly illustrates people laundering money through trafficking of timber, wildlife, drugs, etc. There are some really interesting tools currently being built that make public documentation more accessible and subsequently, more transparent. We’re working with WRI’s Africa team, and they’re building a platform called the Forest Transparency Initiative – which does just that; it allows timber suppliers (right now the prototype is based in DRC) to upload all of their legal documentation, allowing buyers to see exactly where and from whom their timber is coming. This gives the buyer the ability to decide which supplier they’d like to work with. For example, if you’re interested in a certain supplier, but through the FTI platform you can see that this supplier is missing important documentation, you can choose to source from a supplier who has all of his legal documentation posted and vetted on the FTI website.

In the U.S., we have the Lacey Act regulating trade of plants and animals, but we don’t have any way to enforce it. Right now, you can opt to electronically submit your documentation to customs, but it seems most people still elect to submit paper-based documentation, which is so easy to forge. And from what I’ve been told, even through the electronic submissions there’s currently no method to flag suspicious documentation.

While I was working with the Department of Justice, one of the DOJ lawyers explained to me that what triggered a particular Lacey case was the fact that the documentation had something bizarre in it that flagged it to customs officials, and that’s what led the case down the track to testing the material.

It’s likely that the documentation will be the first item to trigger an investigation, so it’s important to get massive transparency across your sourcing and your supply chain. And then, if there are questions in your supply chain, then it’s time to start testing your material. And they do this with eggs, beef and different types of commodities.

Looking forward, what do you see coming down the road in the next five to 10 years? 

I think what we’re going to see is the use of a combination of tools to help vet supply chains. So, for example, is there any way for us as an NGO to help get software into customs or enforcement hands that would help them identify suspicious electronic documentation? Is there any way that we can help transform our current system in the US to say, “Look, it’s only going to be electronic documentation submissions that come in, and there will be a type of software that’s able to analyze this documentation and flag potential bad players”? And in tandem, we’ll continue building reference databases for different technologies.

I think NGOs could play a vital role in funding the development of these databases, but we’d be using a combination of technologies. With physical wood ID — just looking at a piece of wood — you can get down to genus, but most often you can’t get down to species. So if you’ve got flagged material coming in, you send it to a wood anatomist because you feel like it is possibly illegal material, but you don’t know. He can get it down to genus, and sometimes that may be enough. If it’s in the genus Dalbergia from Madagascar, it’s illegal, so right there you’ve got an infraction of the law. But maybe it’s not, maybe it’s a different species that’s not listed, and then that’s where you start, “OK, let’s send it to Dr. Espinoza’s lab where they’re using DART-TOF mass spectrometry to analyze chemical structure and find out what species it is.” Maybe then you go on to DNA and say, “OK, now we need to figure out geographic origin.”

But finding species in some aspects is easier than finding geographic origin (depending on the scale of geography that’s of interest) because in geographic origin you truly need exhaustive sampling within that population to get a good overview of what the population structure looks like. I think for geographic origin it will take a lot longer to get those databases up to par. The expense-limiting and time-limiting factors for being able to figure out geographic origin are that somebody’s got to get out in the field and sample. And it’s getting out there and sampling that material on top of working through those samples and building databases for those populations which is a rate-limiting factor.

What is the role of the consumer in the timber industry?

I think more and more it’s the transparency that people want. People are beginning to realize that they can obtain transparency with regard to the sourcing of their food, and I think more and more, people want to be able to walk into a store and get reliable information with regard to where products have come from and how they were sourced. If you can find out that your wooden crib or your bed is made of sustainably, legally harvested wood, all of a sudden you’re feeling so good inside about the fact that you purchased this. It’s just that paradigm shift — people becoming aware that they can say, “Wait a minute, I can ask for this.” I know that for my own daughter’s crib, we went up to Amish county, because the guys up there are totally open about their sourcing — it’s all locally sourced and sustainably harvested wood from the US. I think when you give the public the power to choose, most of the time, they’re probably going to choose something that’s good for the planet.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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