Singapore company uses DNA tests to fight global trade in illegal timber

Singaporean technology company can pinpoint the species and origin of a piece of wood

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2012, 4:02am


Call it CSI: Singapore.

Unlike the crime scene investigators from the popular TV series, these detectives are hired to look for evidence of rogue wood from stores increasingly worried about being duped by a global trade in illegal timber now worth billions.

They take wood samples into their lab and put them through DNA tests that can pinpoint the species and origin of a piece of timber. They also track timber and the products from forest to shop to ensure clients' shipments are legal.

"This is like CSI meets save the planet," says Jonathan Geach, executive director of Double Helix Tracking Technologies, the Singaporean company that has developed and commercialised DNA testing for wood, the only firm in the world to do so.

Until now, the battle against the US$30 billion annual global trade in illegal timber has been waged with regulations and preventive measures, and has not met with much success. Now it is increasingly focused on using the criminal justice system and law enforcement techniques.

New laws threatening jail time and fines have forced companies around the world to take a harder look at where they get their timber - or pay the price of neglect.

Gibson Guitar, which makes some of the world's most prized guitars, agreed just over two weeks ago to pay a US$300,000 penalty after it admitted possible illegal purchases of ebony from Madagascar.

Industry officials say 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.

A laboratory run by Andrew Lowe, the chief scientific officer at DoubleHelix and one of the world's top plant geneticists, is the frontline in the global fight against illegal logging.

It was at his laboratory at the University of Adelaide in South Australia that the method of extracting DNA taken from a log, a table or even flooring was refined - the breakthrough needed to commercialise testing for timber importers, home improvement stores and law enforcement agencies.

Trees, like people, have unique DNA, said Lowe.

"The DNA is in every cell in a wood product and you can't falsify that DNA."

While DNA testing is extremely accurate due to the unique DNA signature each species has, it has a major limitation to overcome - an incomplete global map of tree genetics.

The weakest link in timber supplies is between the forest and the sawmill, where stolen timber can be added to legitimate wood. In sawmill yards, too, logs from illegally cleared forests can be mixed with legal timber. DNA testing can overcome this, says DoubleHelix.