Detecting illegal wood

The illegal felling of timber is a major problem: it is estimated that 30 to 90 percent of tropical hardwood is felled illegally. Monitoring does little to solve the problem due to the fraudulent documents. Researchers from Wageningen University are working on methods to determine the origin of wood based on DNA or a chemical profile. Previous tests they performed revealed that DNA can be used to distinguish African trees growing just 14 kilometres away from each other.

Text: Dirk-Jan Zom, photos: Pierre Kepseu, Sander van den Bosch

In September, the PhD students Bárbara Rocha Venancio Meyer-Sand and Laura Boeschoten travelled to Cameroon to do fieldwork. The researchers are collecting wood samples in five different countries (three in Africa and two in South-East Asia) to build up a database for the analyses and to improve the methods used.

The wood samples are obtained in various ways. The chemical analysis requires wood from the centre of the tree, whereas the best quality DNA comes from the bark. The researchers choose trees that are 50 metres to kilometres apart to study the relationship between the genetic profile and the spatial distance.

In the laboratories in Wageningen, the researchers dissolve the samples to analyse the chemical composition of the material and characterise the DNA. A new aspect is that they can measure an increasing number of chemical elements from the wood. The concentration and composition of these are related to the soil type­ and therefore the geographical origin of the tree. Ultimately, both analyses will help to determine whether imported wood is illegal or not.

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