Despite recent advances in the fight against illegal logging, tropical forests are still being cut down at an alarming rate, thanks to lack of regulation in some places, or weak enforcement of existing laws in other locales.
But there is another weapon in the arsenal of forest conservationists against this illegal industry worth billions of dollars: the DNA "fingerprinting" of logged trees to determine whether they come from sustainable sources or not. Professor Chuck Cannon of Texas Tech explains in an interview over at Mongobay how the premise could work:
Ideally, a customs agent could obtain a sampling of wood from a shipment of timber during the process of importation. DNA could be extracted from the wood and the DNA sequence could be tested against a database to determine two aspects of legality :
1) whether the wood is the 'correct' or 'reported' species or whether it comes from a protected species;
2) whether it was harvested from the 'right' place or whether it was poached illegally from a protected area.
Since the current system of determining legality hinges on documents that can be faked or switched, using DNA that is intrinsically tied to the very cells of the tree as a marker, comes as an improvement. However, Cannon cautions that this new method would be dependent upon developing a global database of arboreal genetic markers:
We know surprisingly little about the genetics of most tropical tree species, so creating this database would require a rather huge and unprecedented effort. I do still believe that it could be done successfully for a large number of currently traded species. It just requires the initial investment in the creation of the database.
Cannon cites one example of a large collaborative effort between some African nations and the E.U. to get a tree DNA-fingerprinting project off the ground, led by Bernd Degen at the Johann Heinrich von Thünen Institute in Hamburg, Germany.
Could genetic fingerprinting help save the world's tropical forests from destruction? Well, companies that specialize in this practice are emerging, but crucial to the success of tree DNA fingerprinting would be the establishment of accurate databases worldwide, among other vital factors. It's an interesting insight into the intricacies and coming future of forest preservation; read the rest of the interview with Professor Chuck Cannon over at Mongobay.