Kew Gardens scientists test DNA of wood in fight against illegal logging

BENEDICT MOORE-BRIDGER

Scientists at Kew Gardens are leading the fight against the illegal logging industry by helping to create wood DNA tests.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, which has one of the largest collections of wood samples in the world, has teamed up with the Forest Stewardship Council and US Forest Service for the project.

They are building a DNA database of trees that could help authorities determine if wood being sold on the market was taken from protected areas.

Interpol estimates that illegal logging is worth between £23 billion and £76 billion annually, with up to 30 per cent of all internationally traded timber thought to be illegally sourced.

It's estimated that illegal logging is worth between £23 billion and £76 billion annually, with up to 30 per cent of all internationally traded timber thought to be illegally sourced

Kew Gardens and the FSC, which runs the global forest certification system, will pioneer new identification technologies, including DNA and isotope testing. These allow scientists to determine the species of timber using only a small piece of the wood — and also to “geolocate” where it has come from.

The FSC’s Chief Information Officer & Director of IT, Michael Marus, said Kew’s input was “crucial” in developing the techniques, and that its expertise in testing, storing and maintaining wood samples would be vital as the project expands.

Dr Peter Gasson in the wood technologies lab (RBG Kew/Steve Lancefield)

He said: “Their scientific expertise is quite incredible. It is a unique opportunity to develop a library of georeferenced wood samples that will be made available to qualified labs across the world.”

A pilot scheme launched by the FSC in the US in 2017 is being expanded after evidence from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) showed that in Latin America illegally logged wood was being shipped alongside FSC-certified timber.

The new project aims to collect over 200 samples from up to five commonly traded wood species in FSC-certified forests of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Peru in the next year. Ultimately, it is hoped the work will expand to all 1,500 FSC-certified forests.

Dr Peter Gasson, Kew’s research leader on wood and timber, said it has about 42,000 named wood samples, but: “There are plenty of gaps in our collection, and the FSC is well-placed to help us fill some of them with georeferenced samples from their worldwide concessions.”