Success Story: Tree DNA Helps Solve the Case

October 08, 2021

In 2018, a devastating forest fire ripped through Washington state’s Olympic National Forest, destroying dozens of valuable bigleaf maple trees. Amid the burnt wreckage, federal investigators found oversized stumps with sawed-off limbs, evidence that the fire could have been caused by a poorly executed tree heist.

Yes, you read that right — tree heist.

The bigleaf maple trees found in the Olympic National Forest are known for their large trunks and patterned wood, making them desirable targets for woodworkers and the manufacturers of musical instruments. However, it is illegal to harvest trees from national forests without the proper permits.

Tree poaching is becoming a large issue in the Pacific Northwest, costing the U.S. Forest Service an estimated $100 million per year.

After concluding that the fire was the result of a tree heist, Dr. Rich Cronn from the U.S. Forest Service reached out to NEOGEN Genomics for a custom genotyping profile, interested in developing a SNP Panel for maple trees — a useful tool for identifying slight variations within the genome

While unaware of the pending criminal case, NEOGEN Genomics stepped up to help, treating the request like any other customer genotyping request. The team processed over 1,000 samples and delivered genotypes to Dr. Cronn via a custom panel.

By using the genotypic data provided by NEOGEN Genomics, Dr. Cronn was able to genetically match the remains of three poached trees to wood sold to a local lumber mill.

A year later, the NEOGEN Genomics team was notified of the case and were asked to testify for their role in the project.  When the findings were introduced in court, they became the first tree DNA samples to be used in a federal criminal trial, used to convict the timber thief who started the forest fire.

Ben Pejsar, NEOGEN Genomics Market Development Manager, and Dr. Veronica Basnayake, former NEOGEN R&D scientist, took the stand in federal court on July 1, 2021, in Tacoma, Washington.

“It was certainly a nerve-racking experience,” Ben said. “However, it was also very rewarding to show our capabilities as a company in such a unique environment. We leaned heavily on our ISO certification, LIMS tracking, SOP management, and our overall history of being a pioneer in the plant and animal genomics industry.”

The tree DNA evidence presented was “so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion,” prosecutors said. (In case you don’t know, one undecillion is one followed by 36 zeroes.)

“This serves as a unique reminder that what we do every day is important and that our cornerstone pillar of QUALITY ultimately gave us the opportunity to impact and participate in this case,” Ben said.

This is just one more example of how NEOGEN and our NEOGEN colleagues are helping to protect our planet through the solutions we provide. Special “thank you” to everyone in the genomics lab for all their hard work and for living our mission every day.

If you want to read more, news about the trial was picked up by AP News and The Washington Post.

We offer comprehensive and cost-effective genomic tools to support a wide range of commercial and research applications. Including Next Generation Sequencing options, genotyping capabilities via fixed array technologies, unrivaled chip design, and our genomics laboratories are ISO 17025 certified. Within our growing portfolio, we offer customizable products to best support you and your goals.

Discover how our customizable genotyping arrays and DNA sequencing solutions can provide deeper analysis and insight into your research today!

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Category: Genomics