Professor Pieter Zuidema, from the Forest Ecology and Forest Management Group at Wageningen University recently talked to Gesche Schifferdecker, GTTN Secretariat, about a new forensic timber tracing service Wageningen is currently developing, and the different partners involved.
G.S.: What are the advantages of genetic wood identification? Why is this method used by some labs like Thünen Institute, but not implemented broadly yet? Especially in comparison to – for instance – wood anatomy or stable isotopes?
PZ: We need to distinguish two reasons and goals for wood identification. One is to identify the species and the other one to identify or trace the geographical origin of the tree. In the first sense, wood anatomy is doing a great job. It is very advanced and a well-established method to identify at species or genus level.
However, wood anatomy is not able to provide geographic identification or tracing of wood, obviously. We have found that genetic wood identification over – for instance chemical identification – has more potential when tracing the geographic origin, but not in all cases. I think the nice thing is that you always use the genetic basis of variation: Biology that tells us that trees that are related to each other in terms of kinship tend to be close to each other. The reason for this is limited dispersal, distances of pollen or seeds. That is the biological starting point of genetic identification of timber origin. I consider this approach very powerful. The downside is that we need genetic markers for each species we study.
G.S.: At the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) you are conducting a new project called TIMTRACE (’Forensic tracing of tropical timber: delivering an operational service’) aiming at developing a timber tracing service. Since there are already different services on the market: What is the purpose of TIMTRACE and how do you want to bring the service into action?
P.Z.: With TIMTRACE we aim at delivering an operational timber tracing service for customers in the Netherlands and beyond, focusing first on tracking tropical timber. Of course, we will prioritize the major timber species imported into the Netherlands. The service should be based on both genetic and chemical tracing, if possible.
G.S.: Are you planning to use a combination of methods?
P.Z.: It could be a combination of methods, but only if that improves the results. We still do not know if that is the case. We are developing and testing methods at this moment, even new methods. One part of this project is to develop the service and making sure that it will work, but we also have two PhD students and a post doc working on the development of both chemical and genetic tracing techniques, statistical analyses and reference database building as well as sharing data. You see, there is a lot of development needed before we can deliver that service and before this service is operational.
G.S.: Who do you work with in TIMTRACE, apart from scientists?
We collaborate with potential customers including customs in the Netherlands, also the customs lab and competent authorities, those who are legally defined as the organisation to verify the compliance with the EU Timber Regulation. Since the beginning of the project, we have also be working with NGOs and timber companies, these also could be customers in the end to see to what extent the timber they purchase is legally sourced. Thus, we have all those potentials users as cooperating partners in this project, providing feedback to our plans. They have a direct influence in where we go and how we go. In this way, we jointly shape the TIMTRACE service .
G.S.: When do you plan TIMTRACE to be ready for operation?
P.Z.: My aim would be within five years from now.
G.S.: You already said is that we are missing an international reference database. The development of such database plays an important role in our activities within GTTN (Global Timber Tracking Network). Who is in charge of that in your project?
P.Z.: In my opinion, it is crucial to address the question of an international reference database within the framework of GTTN network. We have to consider the options both in technical terms regarding intellectual property rights, but also in terms of difficulties with data sharing and data contribution and its potential, so there are different sets of issues we need to tackle. And when I say “we”, I mean the general GTTN community.
I very much see the value of networking. This does not only refer to different databases and how to potentially integrate them in one international database. I am also talking about standardization and protocol development. Data sharing is already happening, but there is always the question: who has access and who does not? Furthermore, we are facing some technical issues, like the harmonization of data. And: we have to consider different options in terms of database management: Do we prefer distributed databases instead of one central database, to share data without giving it away?
Finally, we need to see what technical opportunities we have and to what extent those tools we use could overcome some of the barriers that currently exist both for researchers at Universities and private providers when sharing data. Part of the data will be published in the global reference database we would like to develop and build within GTTN. Part of the data is already in the public domain or will be available there in the future. Part of the TIMTRACE data have been in the public domain, but this will not always be possible.
But also there are good reasons from the perspective of researchers at universities not to publish data before publishing scientific papers. As you can see: I am aware of the barriers in data sharing and I think the solution is to be found in a network such as GTTN. And I see potential also in technical solutions to help to get us there.
G.S: Well, we are all looking forward to even more collaboration in the future!