Australian tree experts have helped foil a horticultural heist.

In a landmark case in the US, tree DNA has been used to convict national forest timber thieves.

Four defendants have been prosecuted for stealing Bigleaf maple wood from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and pleaded guilty, but it would not have happened without some local know-how.

University of Adelaide researchers developed a system to track and match DNA evidence from trees, forming a central part of the US government’s case against the Bigleaf burglars.

They joined the US Forest Service, specialists from Double Helix Tracking Technologies and the World Resources Institute to develop the first DNA profiling reference database for the species.

It is the only one of its kind for trees that has been validated for use in court proceedings.

Just like humans, each individual tree has a unique genetic fingerprint, making it possible to match pieces of sawn wood with the stumps of the trees from which they were cut.

“Our database indicates that, with these markers, the likelihood of two trees having the same DNA profile is as low as one in 428 sextillion; there are thought to be approximately 70 sextillion stars in the universe,” says Professor Andrew Lowe, Chair of Conservation Biology at the University of Adelaide, and Chief Scientific Officer of Double Helix.

In the US, the theft of Bigleaf maple from public lands has been a persistent problem.

Distortions in the wood grain can create patterns prized by woodworkers and used particularly in the musical instrument trade to make unique, high-end guitars.

When milled, a single log of maple can be worth more than $100,000.

But because of the high-tech input from Australian scientists, obtaining one illicitly has become a bit more difficult.

The conviction is also notable as it is the first time the US government has prosecuted for illegal interstate trade of wood products under the Lacey Act.

The Lacey Act is a US wildlife protection law that was amended in 2008 to include plants, making it illegal to trade in illegally sourced wood products.

“Illegal logging is a significant problem across the world, contributing to the destruction of the world’s forests and oppression of many of its most vulnerable people. DNA profiling and tracking of timber provides a means to help curb this illegal activity and support legitimate forest industries,” says University of Adelaide Research Fellow Dr Eleanor Dormontt.

The DNA markers developed for the court case have been peer-reviewed and published in the journal Conservation Genetic Resources.