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UW opens new center for environmental forensic science

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Tracking elephant poachers through tusks

Professor Samuel Wasser has been tracking illegally poached ivory using forensic testing techniques. The tusks on display in his office are cast replicas.

In an effort to combat illegal transnational environmental crime alongside the state and federal governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other universities, UW established the Center for Environmental Forensic Science (CEFS) last fall, according to a UW News report

Replacing the Center for Conservation Biology established in 2001, according to the UW Office of Research, the goal of CEFS is to limit the trade of illegal environmental goods as early as possible, according to the CEFS website. With the help of state funding, CEFS will work to broaden its existing connections from the old center, according to UW News. By employing a wide range of interdisciplinary studies such as AI, biology, and economics, CEFS can work toward preventing crimes rather than responding to them, according to the CEFS website.

“We are all facing the challenge that about 70% of all the world’s products are moved on containers and ships, so it creates an ideal opportunity for criminals to hide their contraband in containers and conceal it in that legal trade,” Samuel Wasser, professor of biology and co-executive director of CEFS, said.

Wasser said that traditional forensic science, the focus of collecting trace DNA and developing a fingerprint, does not address the transnational aspect of environmental crimes, which he described as the most significant aspect.

Wasser’s work involves things such as developing noninvasive tools that match elephant DNA to geographical regions in order to determine the origin of illegally traded ivory, according to the CEFS website. His discoveries have led to the identification of three major transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in Africa, according to a paper published by Wasser in Nature Human Behavior.

While ivory often comes to the forefront in discussions on illegal environmental trafficking, other species face severe threats as well.

“A lot of these [environmental] crimes are interlinked. So ivory and pangolins are shipped with illegal timber, and by pooling this information within the Center and combining it, you get a much broader picture of what’s going on and the networks involved,” John Hermanson, a research scientist in the School of Environment and Forestry Sciences and co-executive director of CEFS, said.

Hermanson’s XyloTron project focuses on employing machine learning as a means of identifying wood species, according to the CEFS website. His Arbor Harbor project identifies links between trees and global trade. According to Wasser, detecting contraband early allows for probable cause required to hold shipments and investigate further into the crime.

Biology and computer science provide naturally complementary interdisciplinary studies at CEFS, but the center does not limit itself to the study of biological forensics. Transnational crimes such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing pose threats in the tens of billions of dollars in economic damage, according to the CEFS website. Professor Chris Anderson, a fisheries economist at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS), focuses on the role economics plays in developing effective management strategies for aquatic and fishery resources, according to the SAFS website.

“Legitimate fisheries can be corrupted by IUU fishing, and [TCOs] can do this in a couple ways,” Anderson said. “One is, illegal products can be sort of surreptitiously introduced into legitimate supply chains.”

Anderson said this leads to uncertainty in the grocery store amongst consumers, and whether or not the fish they are purchasing was sustainably caught or unsustainably caught and in support of a TCO.

“We want the people who are harvesting seafood responsibly, to be able to have good businesses and make livelihoods off that,” Anderson said. 

Through research into Oligonucleotide ligation assay (OLA), a type of rapid detection technology aimed at identifying populations of fish, CEFS is working towards the ability to identify whether fish came from responsible and legal sourcing. The identification of which body of water a fish came from and whether the fish was U.S.-caught or potentially IUU in nearby China ensures this legitimacy, according to the CEFS website.

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Nuttada Panpradist, a postdoctoral research fellow in the UW Lutz Lab, led the development of the fish-OLA technology. 

“Having a tool that is low-cost and can be easily performed by first-time users would be a game changer for IUU fishing,” Panpradist wrote in an email.

The fish-OLA assay kit tested by undergraduate students reported having a 92% accuracy rate with a 5% failure rate on a blinded sample of 200 cod, according to the CEFS website.

The inclusion of undergraduate students in Panpradist’s experiment demonstrates that students of all levels of enrollment can work with CEFS. 

Kristen Finch, a postdoctoral researcher with the UW Wasser Lab focusing on single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), stressed the importance of undergraduate research.

“I think [CEFS] is going to be a great opportunity for graduate students, undergraduates, and probably postdocs as well in the future as the Center grows,” Finch said.

Finch, who got her start in research as an undergraduate, also said that the idea of students immersing themselves in multiple fields through CEFS is important. The UW Undergraduate Research Program (URP) offers available research opportunities for undergraduates.

“I really think [CEFS] could lead to some opportunities for students who want to be interdisciplinary,” Finch said.

With forensic science in the name, CEFS will generate opportunities with real-world forensic science problems and real data, according to Wasser. 

But as Finch said, those interested in supplementary fields to forensic science, like public policy, can enhance their interdisciplinary education.

“It’s something tangible that students can sink their teeth into … the application is one component of education that a lot of students can take hold of and understand in real-world terms,” Hermanson said.

Reach contributing writer Jack Philbrick at Twitter: @JackPhilbrick8

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