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Can a DNA Database Save the Shrinking Forests of the Earth? These Scientists Hope So.

Forests are disappearing. Maps show shrinking woodlands all over the world. Even trees coveted for their wood that are protected from logging are chopped down.

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Sandra E. Garcia
, New York Times

Forests are disappearing. Maps show shrinking woodlands all over the world. Even trees coveted for their wood that are protected from logging are chopped down.

Worried about such deforestation, environmental advocates are driving a project to create a DNA database of populations of the bigleaf maple tree on the West Coast. The eventual goal is to use DNA mapping to combat the thriving black markets for timber in tropical countries that are plagued by illegal logging.

“We are taking leaf tissue from the maple trees and taking samples along the entire length of the species range from Southern California to British Columbia,” said Meaghan Parker-Forney, a science officer with the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes environmental sustainability and is working on the monthslong initiative.

The DNA database is an experimental project for the Norwegian government, which is jointly funding the effort with the U.S. Forest Service’s international program. Norway hopes to see whether such a database is feasible in places like Indonesia and Peru, where illegal logging is rampant.

Using volunteers from Adventure Scientists, a nonprofit organization that specializes in outdoor data collection, the World Resources Institute has recorded different populations of the bigleaf maple, and the unique characteristics of each population.

Environmental advocates hope that DNA databases could be used for legal cases. Several people in the United States have been convicted of illegal logging using DNA evidence. Genetic markers can indicate whether a tree was logged from a protected location.

“If someone came to us and told us their wood came from Washington state and it in fact did not, we would be able to say if the wood they were declaring came from a legal location, or we could say that in fact that is not where it came from,” Parker-Forney said.

Collecting the DNA is fairly simple. Volunteers are trained online by Adventure Scientists and use an app to log information in the field.

Ashley Plaga, 33, planned her vacation around collecting tree DNA for the project.

“I just got back from a backpacking trip to Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur,” Plaga said in a phone interview, referring to the region in Central California. “We had 20 miles of trail that we were backpacking, and when we reached certain areas that coincided with where a bigleaf maple would be, I would look for trees that fit the description and I would take a leaf from the tree.”

Before setting out on their adventures, volunteers take two brief online courses. The courses and a quiz detail the goals of the project and teach volunteers how to identify the environment of the tree as well as how to collect and store the DNA samples.

“I would take a leaf from the tree and use an app that asks a number of questions, like the latitude and longitude of the location, the circumference of the tree,” Plaga said. “We also had to take pictures of the tree and leaves and log the information into the system.”

A similar DNA database system is being put in place to help fight illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking. The Barcode of Wildlife Project, for example, aims to use DNA to enforce laws protecting endangered species, combating an illegal wildlife trade that it says is a $20-billion-a-year industry.

The project says on its website that it hopes to help prevent the poaching of endangered wildlife by demonstrating “the value of DNA bar coding for investigating and prosecuting wildlife crime.”

Collecting DNA from wild animals is much easier than collecting from leaves because the DNA survives for much longer, according to Parker-Forney, who previously worked with the Barcode of Wildlife initiative as a project manager.

“We helped build a capacity in countries dealing in the trade and illegal poaching of endangered animals to help them set up a chain-of-custody system where they had the ability to test the illegal material in a database,” she said.

If an elephant tusk is found, it is possible to use its DNA to map where the animal was poached and to match its sister tusk, which may be tracked down elsewhere, Parker-Forney said.

“We focused on the most highly trafficked material," she said.

Nineteen volunteers have collected DNA samples for the tree project. At the moment, a single volunteer is collecting samples of the bigleaf maple tree, near Port Mellon Highway in Gibsons, British Columbia. Seventy-four other volunteers are ready to be deployed. The project is expected to be completed by December.

“The best part was that I learned so much,” Plaga said. Her time volunteering became “a catalyst to learn more. Is it a native species, is it invasive?”

The more volunteers learn, the more they will pass on: The DNA database will eventually be available to the public.

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