Greatest Hits 4 – Getting Technical: Your Wood’s DNA, Part 2

We’re continuing our talk with Chris Knowles of Oregon State University and how DNA analysis can be used in real world legality programs.

Chris, can and should companies build DNA analysis into their due care programs now?  How would they go about that?

Currently, scientists around the world are working to develop genographic maps that can be used to verify the provenance of wood products. These genographic maps reflect the ecological and evolutionary variation present in forests and contain information about the distribution of genetic types for trees across a landscape. There may be a future where “genetic checkpoints” could be used to identify shipments of illegally harvested wood products.

But while DNA is promising, there are several challenges to DNA analysis being used immediately in the real world. For example, we do not have a significant number of public genographic maps available. Companies would have to develop their own which may or may not be feasible for any number of reasons.

Naturally the first challenge in creating a map for your forest unit would be the expense associated with the process. While improvements in technology have driven down the cost of DNA analysis, it does still add expense to what in many cases is a low margin business. In addition to the costs associated with the analysis, there is cost associated with the collection of samples for testing and samples for reference.

Ideally, a sample would be taken from every tree harvested from a unit. These samples could be stored and used to develop reference samples in the event that concern is raised about the origin of wood products from that stand at some point in the future. This process results in cost associated with collection of the samples, cost associated with storing the collected samples, and then cost associated with analyzing the samples should that ever become necessary. These additional costs may or may not be feasible, depending upon the overall value of the transaction.

That’s a lot of costs!  Do you have a ballpark figure on what just one single DNA sample test would cost?

There’s no established costing for tree DNA testing. We see advertisements for DNA analysis for paternity testing in humans with costs as low as $75 per test. Other tests used to help people determine ancestry begin at about $150. As discussed before, many of the cells in wood do not contain DNA so the process of finding useable DNA from wood cells is often more difficult than from human cells. This often leads to higher costs.

What other challenges do we face?

An additional challenge that people rarely recognize at first is related to the nature of seed stock. For many commercially valuable species around the world, clones are utilized when reforesting. These clones of course have the exact same genetic material within each clonal variety planted. Stands can be composed of one clonal variety or multiple clonal varieties. One clonal variety may be planted across multiple stands. Consequently, while the results of DNA analysis may confirm the clonal variety of the species, they do not provide any guarantee that the tree was harvested from the stand of interest. This is why it is important that if companies chose to utilize DNA analysis that it is used as part of a larger due diligence / due care program.

Natural forests and naturally regenerated forests compound this challenge. The genetic profile within a given species varies by region so it could be possible to determine the region that a piece of wood came from assuming that there is an adequate base of reference samples to be compared with. However, there are currently limits to how specific the technology can be. It has been show that differences between species can be identified for trees located within a few kilometers of each other. This helps minimize, but does not eliminate, the chance of illegal wood entering the supply chain.

Take for example two adjacent forests with similar species compositions, one is a protected reserve where logging is forbidden and the other is an actively managed forest where harvest is legal and active. DNA analysis may be able to tell you that the wood in question came from the region that contains these two forests but may not be able to determine which of the two forests it came from. The genetic variation that is present in these forests is the result of natural evolutionary forces and is not related to the arbitrary man-made boundaries placed in the area. This challenge illustrates how DNA can be a useful tool as part of a larger due care / due diligence program but may not be adequate by when used in isolation.

A third challenge would be simply access. Could every company get access to the original forest data?  Even the first buyer might have trouble tracking all the material from a harvesting contract by another company. Then to track that DNA data all the way down the chain, as the product was further processed—it’s a logistical nightmare. In this case, we’re not just tracking a production run as either a “produced by a certified company” the way FSC does, or as a production lot, the way CARB does it. We’re talking about trying to track every tree and every stick of lumber produced from that tree and then every piece of floor created from the lumber…access and logistics are a clear challenge.

Clearly we’re a long way from this being a routine check then. Any time frame on when it might be more feasible?

The future of DNA analysis is promising. Scientists are constantly moving this technology forward, resulting in more accurate results at a lower cost. This field is still relatively young and is evolving rapidly. This evolution is improving the ability of DNA analysis to pinpoint the origin of wood products and it is likely that at some point in the future we will be able to accurately identify the geographical origin of products to within a very small area. But I doubt you’ll see it used regularly, much less routinely, for a decade or more.

Thank you, Chris!

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