The Timber Tracking Team within the Lowe Lab Group develop and apply methods of DNA barcoding, population genetics, phylogeography and genetic individualisation to the problems of illegal logging. We are dedicated to the conservation of the world’s forest resources through independent scientific verification of timber supply chains and support for sustainable and responsible forest utilisation. We have a range of projects ongoing, including:
Tropical hardwoods traded under the name ‘meranti’ (Shorea spp. and Parashorea spp.) are a major timber export from Indonesia. We’re working with the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to develop genetic tools to help identify species and improve traceability systems in this trade group. The project focuses on the forests of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), one of the last homes of the Orangutan and a global biodiversity hotspot.
Identifying species in solid timber is difficult but the challenges in plywood are even greater, given that multiple species can make up the different layers and have been subject to processing. Our project focuses on optimising DNA extraction from meranti plywood (Shorea spp. and Parashorea spp.) and identifying species using a metabarcoding approach.
Teak (Tectona grandis) is a very valuable timber sourced from plantations and natural forests. Illegal logging of this species threatens the stability and profitability of the legal trade, as well as degrading primary forests. We are working to develop genetic tools to identify the geographic origin of teak products, and to enable tracking of individual logs through supply chains. This work aims to provide a method for legitimate producers and traders to prove their legality, and for enforcement officers to detect illegal timber.
African Teak (Pericopsis elata) is a CITES listed timber species requiring government issued import and export permits for trade. We are developing an individual genetic tracking system in this species to verify supply chains and give assurances regarding the legal origin of this valuable and protected species.
Figured wood from the Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) is used to make guitars amongst other things and is very valuable. The Pacific Northwest of the USA has seen a spate of maple thefts from its national parks and reached out to us to help develop a forensic genetic individual identification test for the species. The test allows the stump of a felled tree to be matched to any timber from the same tree, thereby linking evidence to crime scenes as well as facilitating the verification of legal maple products.
The East Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) and the West Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) are two economically valuable species of high cultural and religious importance; their fragrant heartwood used for joss sticks, traditional carvings and ornamental furniture. However, the overharvesting and unregulated poaching of both sandalwoods has driven native populations of S. album to vulnerable levels, while S. spicatum faces a similar fate. Furthermore, South Australian populations of S. spicatum are rarely accounted for, yet still serve as a means of income and cultural significance for many indigenous communities. We are developing genetic tools to verifying the species and geographical origin of sandalwood to help maintain the integrity of the timber trade and reduce illegal harvesting.
Identifying timber from DNA relies on a critical process – DNA extraction. The DNA in timber is generally of low quantity and quality, and extractives in the wood are inhibitory. Our researchers led a patent for the bespoke DNA extraction method developed specifically for timber, and we are always working to further improve and optimise the procedure.
Developing tests to identify timber is one thing, employing these tests for forensic purposes is entirely another. Forensics requires a level of quality assurance not necessary for academic applications, and hence much effort is required to validate and apply identification tests in a forensic context. We are constantly working to translate our research into forensic ready tools and develop a laboratory environment where this work can be carried out according to forensic best practice.