# Project Description
## Why Rosewood?
Today, the planet faces great risks for its survival. Global warming, the increasing population, and the ecological crisis are forcing humans to question the future of our own species and others that inhabit the planet. Added to this is the illegal and systematic trafficking of wildlife products which constitutes the final nail in the coffin, aggravating the ecological crisis.
Rosewood is the most trafficked product in the world by volume and value. It is more important than elephant ivory, rhino horns and pangolin scales combined (Figure 1) [[1–3]](#ref1). According to the World Wildlife Seizures database more than a third of the plants and animals traded illegally between 2005 and 2014 were rosewood [](#ref4). After considering many targets during our brainstorming sessions, it was because of these appalling statistics that rosewood became the center of our project.
**Figure 1.** Trafficked wildlife product in the world [](#ref4).
Since the ban of Rosewood’s illegal logging 10 years ago, in Madagascar alone an estimated 2 millions logs are still hidden in the Northeastern part of the country summing up to an equivalent of $300 million dollars [](#ref5).
The trafficked wood is mainly headed to China, which consumes a lot of this wood to make furniture that traditionally represents a certain wealth for the family (a bed made of rosewood can be worth about $1 million). Forests in Africa, South America and Central America have experienced a radical reduction of their Rosewood populations to respond to the high-volume demand [](#ref6). On top of the environmental crisis, deforestation is particularly challenging because the countries involved also endure political conflicts, corruption [](#ref7), and poor social conditions [](#ref2).
## Environmental impact
Forests allow humans to breathe: plants fix CO2 to transform it into O2 [](#ref8). The illegal trade in rosewood is one of the most widespread throughout the world and therefore creates massive deforestation, which leads to a decrease in CO2 absorption and therefore less breathable air. CO2 has a significant impact on the global climate, and in too large quantities it becomes harmful. Forests act as a buffer (as in chemistry), i.e. they make it possible to lower the temperature by an average of 4°C. This deforestation therefore has an impact on the dryness of the soil, which also leads to repeated fires and therefore disastrous damage to the environment but also to the population [](#ref2).
Trees and forests are essential for the survival of us humans, but not only. This deforestation also has an impact on the animal species that need these trees to live, such as the flying lemurs in Madagascar that make their nest in rosewood and thus disappear with the wood [](#ref2). This trafficking therefore has a negative impact on biodiversity and the endangerment of species that are therefore at risk of disappearing.
## Impact on populations
Illegal trafficking of rosewood, or trees in general, has considerable impacts on the human populations and several studies in different countries show this [](#ref9).
Deforestation has an effect on the aggravation of natural disasters. Forests provide good soil structure and quality, trees continuously recycle nutrients and this prevents desertification and leads to soil stability. If trees disappear, the soil is no longer protected by the torrential rains that occur frequently in tropical climates. This can result in landslides or flooding which can have consequences for the local population, as there was the case in Madagascar [](#ref10).
This trafficking can also represent a major danger to the health of populations because trees shelter wild animal species that can carry pathogens that may cause epidemics and even pandemics. So, with deforestation, animals that should be living in the forests, come closer to humans in plantations, creating a contact zone conducive to the transmission of viruses. We can think of the Nipah virus in Bangladesh [](#ref11), or Ebola in West Africa, which has killed more than 2200 people [](#ref12).
But these are not the only consequences for the world's population. Indeed, indigenous populations are among the greatest victims of this practice due to the fact that the forests are their habitat and the illegal exploitation of wood often forces them to emigrate. Such was the case of the Jarai or the Kavet in Cambodia [](#ref19). Other indigenous populations have even been devastated by traffickers, for example the Akuntsus Indians in the Amazon [](#ref13).
Moreover, in some poor countries, water shortages often occur, as in Madagascar, where rosewood is heavily exploited. This wood, like most trees, helps to replenish the water tables which are necessary for access to drinking water because the forests prevent soil erosion and therefore the drinking water basins remain clean and viable. Thus, the illegal trafficking of rosewood can expose populations to water scarcity and drought.
This trafficking has also a brake on ecotourism in protected areas which is a very beneficial sector of activity for local populations. For example, in Madagascar, since 2009, revenues from this sector have fallen and the number of visitors has decreased by 56% [](#ref10). This drop is due in particular to the illegal trafficking of rosewood, which creates conflicts between local residents and criminals. As a result, the income, part of which is used to build infrastructures for the well-being of the population, have fallen considerably.
Also, food security of the local populations is at risk, as the cultivation of food crops is often dropped due to lack of manpower to the benefit of the illicit activities linked to the rosewood traffic, which bring more profit. As a consequence, a significant increase of the price of basic necessities is observed [](#ref14).
## What have we done?
To stop the illegal rosewood trade, a big part of the difficulty lies in the strenuous, slow identification process where local authorities have to send samples to national laboratories with low resources in order to get a correct identification of the species [](#ref15). Given the pressure to rapidly pass products through national barriers, a lot of illegal logging is thus under-controlled.
In contrast to the noticeable elephant’s ivory or tiger’s fur, once Rosewood is logged, it is impossible to distinguish it from other non-protected wood species by naked eye and still hard with the use of a microscope [](#ref15). However, there is compelling scientific evidence to believe that the Dalbergia species, the main Rosewood species in Madagascar, can be distinguished at the genetic level with a precision that is legally relevant [[16–19]](#ref16). Yet, to the best of our knowledge, no Rosewood identification tool based on genetic signatures exists.
To circumvent this situation, we had a simple idea: create an inexpensive, portable and easy-to-use biosensor, that will accelerate the identification process and thus empower local authorities to identify and stop the logging of rosewood. We have been looking for ways to use sequences conserved in the tree genome to generate an output that could identify the logged species listed in the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flore) Appendix II, the authoritative list of international allowed trade for protected species [](#ref20). Our biosensor will provide a tool for the local authorities of all ports located on the trade routes between China and countries like Madagascar, to rapidly investigate the origin and type of wood. If the wood is identified as protected by the CITES Appendix II, then the enforcement authorities can take legal measures against the illegal traders.
The biosensor, based on toehold switches (Figure 2), works like a scanner that identifies the biological material by checking for specific sequences of the DNA of a specific organism. Indeed, as highlighted in Figure 2, a toehold switch is an RNA–based device containing a ribosome binding site (RBS) and an ATG start codon embedded in a hairpin structure that blocks translation initiation [](#ref21). The hairpin can be unfolded upon binding of a trigger RNA thereby exposing the RBS and permitting translation of the reporter protein. The binding between the trigger and the switch is dictated by RNA-RNA interactions between the complementary base pairs. In the past, such biosensors have been employed to identify relevant biological material and mutations specific to diseases like cancer [](#ref22) and Zika virus [](#ref23) and more recently the SARS-CoV-2 virus [[24,25]](#ref24).
Figure 2. Toehold switches principle (schematic inspired from iGEM Athens 2018).
Our project makes possible to overcome the technological hurdles involved with developing the rosewood specific biosensor. These challenges are the focus of our computational, experimental and human practices work:
- *In silico*, we evaluated the genetic sequences that facilitate the identification of rosewood loggings from the genetically close species and we designed the toehold switches (see the [‘Model’](https://2020.igem.org/Team:Evry_Paris-Saclay/Model) page of this wiki).
- In the wet lab we assembled 18 toehold switches and their cognate triggers in standard backbones. We performed a first screening *in vivo* using the common gut bacterium (*Escherichia coli*) as chassis (see the [‘Engineering’](https://2020.igem.org/Team:Evry_Paris-Saclay/Engineering) page of this wiki) and 6 of the best performing toehold switches were selected and successfully tested *in vitro* in a cell-free experimental set-up as a proof of concept for the final inexpensive, portable and easy-to-use biosensor (see the [‘Proof of Concept’](https://2020.igem.org/Team:Evry_Paris-Saclay/Proof_Of_Concept) and [‘Implementation’](https://2020.igem.org/Team:Evry_Paris-Saclay/Implementation) pages of this wiki).
- On the human practice side, we contacted international professionals in the field of law, sociology, genetics working on rosewood that guided us towards a comprehensive evaluation of various aspects including the level of rosewood illegal trade, its impact on the environment and populations living in the affected areas, what the authorities do and what they can do. As the trafficked wood is mainly headed to China, we also integrated in our reflection their point of view (see the [‘Human Practices’](https://2020.igem.org/Team:Evry_Paris-Saclay/Human_Practices) page of this wiki).
While our project focuses on Rosewood, we believe that with the computational tools, experimental protocols and social networks developed, we in fact worked towards a genetic rescue tool for conservation that we could apply rapidly and effectively to address similar challenges for other endangered species such as timber trees [](#ref26).
The Rosewood biosensor is the first step towards sustainable logging of Rosewood and other endangered species because it represents a high scale-high impact pioneering example of using genomic technologies to maintain biodiversity in underdeveloped countries. It will also contribute to sustaining the production of items that carry cultural heritage to certain communities, while simultaneously providing jobs and enhancing progress to other communities in need. Still, after implementing the tool in real life settings there will be a lot of community effort needed for the education and reforestation of damaged zones. We envision a future where we plant DNA barcoded trees that are specifically grown for logging purposes and where all human beings, fauna and flora in the chain are benefited, so that we can contribute to the development of countries and their natural habitats and inhabitants.
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