Many are probably familiar with the DNA technology used to solve mysterious crimes or cases of uncertain paternity. DNA tests have nailed more than a few murderers, allowed the release of the wrongly imprisoned and forced celebrities to shell out big bucks to groupies with kids.
Terms such as “genetic fingerprinting” and “barcoding” are also commonly associated with the genetic manipulation of crops and animals, and have raised controversial arguments about mankind’s treatment of nature.
Recent applications of DNA-related technology show that this hi-tech tool can also be used to protect and preserve biodiversity.
Have you ever looked at a wooden table, rolling pin, chair, stool or any kind of wooden object and thought about the tree it came from?
Have you ever spent time imagining the journey that a piece of wood made before arriving in your kitchen, or thought about the region where that tree grew before it was chopped down to become your bedroom floor?
While international certification systems such as FSC or PEFC theoretically guarantee the wood comes from sustainably harvested forests, flaws in the lumber supply chain and the labyrinthine journey logs must complete from the forest to the sawmill to our homes affect the reliability of certification systems and importers’ claims that they know the exact origin of the wood.
A solution to defective labels lies in a four-letter code contained in a three-letter acronym: DNA.
Every organism and organic entity, dead or alive, can be traced by analyzing its DNA.
The thought of the faultless scientific truth provided by DNA tests struck artist Lucy Davis when in 2009 she started a project on deforestation and destruction of the primary rainforest in Southeast Asia.
Knowing the services provided by Singapore-based company DoubleHelix Tracking Technologies, namely the possibility to accurately retrace the geographic and genetic origin of timber, she decided to work backward to the supply chain of a teak bed she bought in a Singapore karang guni junk store.
“I chose a simple bed, easy to recognize, probably a mass-produced object and I tried the DNA testing. I wanted to know the whole story of the teak bed,” said Lucy, a visual artist and author who also is an assistant professor at the school of art design and media at the Nanyang Technological University Singapore.
This idea eventually resulted in “Jalan Jati” (Teak Road), a collection of artistic work related to the story of teak in Southeast Asia.
The verification system provided by DoubleHelix compares the DNA extracted from a wood sample to a database composed of genetic information.
These maps show the distribution of “populations” or families of tree species and the genetic variations between them.
The DNA testing process is composed of few clear steps. First, wood samples are collected by piercing the bark of the tree with a circular hammer. Part of the layer between the bark and the pulp of the tree — known as the cambium — is extracted and placed in a plastic bag to prevent humidity from affecting the sample.
Then, the wood is sent to a forest genetics lab, where the DNA is extracted and compared with the genetic data available.
These databases contain data about the DNA extracted from previous wood samples. If the paired samples match, it is possible to verify the geographic origin, identify the species and, if necessary, even trace the log back to the exact stump from which it was felled.
“There are currently about twenty species of tree mapped,” DoubleHelix executive director Jonathan Geach said as he explained the process Lucy’s bed and all wood samples go through for DNA testing.
The company has also launched a sponsorship program to link private sector, community groups and the scientific community to drive the campaign for tree barcoding.
“At the moment” he said, “it is very hard to access data, as a lot has yet to be mapped. This is why we are promoting the creation of a central global genetic database. With such a tool, we could potentially identify all species of trees. It would be of great support for biodiversity conservation too,” Geach said.
The database is open source, meaning that it is freely accessible and the result of stakeholders’ collaborative process.
This ensures transparency in the testing process as well as improvements in local scientific knowledge and capacity.
It is also allows for the establishment of genetic sovereignty, or the capacity of a people, community or nation to hold and monitor the access and the use of samples, data and knowledge concerning any kind of genetic material.
This is extremely important when establishing conservation areas as well as biodiversity and genetic resource management plans.
In fact, the applications of DNA technology in terms of biodiversity conservation go beyond those used to curb illegal logging and tackle counterfeiting.
The identification of the unique DNA code related to a species (DNA barcode) or to an individual organism (DNA fingerprint) allows scientists to discover new species and to reconstruct the relations among them.
This knowledge helps assess which species are at risk and to establish conservation areas.
Furthermore, DNA barcoding allows people to survey the richness of a species in an ecosystem.
By taking a sample of the variety of species present in an area, scientists can calculate their quantity in a larger area, measure changes in biodiversity and plan reforestation programs.
As it always happens, the applications of scientific developments are likely to be somewhat controversial.
Some environmentalists claim that new technologies related to the study of DNA, this amazing “recipe of life” that is distinct and unique for each organic entity, can be speculative. The fact that “new technologies don’t have to be socially useful in order to be profitable” can actually expose the world to applications that increase the monopolization of the market.
Critics warn about the importance of monitoring the evolution of the way this knowledge is managed.
However, it is also true the discovery of DNA has revolutionized the study of biodiversity.
As we continue to discover new species, understanding their relationships to other organisms and their origins can assist in the conservation of the planet’s rich diversity.
Although more and more people are deprived of the privilege of appreciating the wonders of a natural forest, DNA-related technology can help protect the little that is left by allowing researchers and environmentally conscious consumers to trace timber products back to their very roots.
The artistic project Jalan Jati has been exhibited across Europe and Asia. It will next stop at the Edinburgh Science Festival [March-July 2013], the National University of Singapore Museum  and LKC Natural History Museum . Check out migrantecologies.org for more details.
Published on the Jakarta Post