Tech Support for an Ailing Planet

With the threats of poaching and deforestation mounting, some start-ups are taking a high-tech approach to the world’s most pressing conservation issues.

On a crisp fall morning in 2011, Alexander “Sascha” von Bismarck arrived at a wood flooring processing plant in Dalian, China. He was there as part of a years-long project, knee-deep in an investigation tracing the path of illegal lumber as it moved from forest to consumer. All of his efforts had led to this moment.

Thanks to earlier work, he already knew that illegally harvested oak and ash were being funneled into China from Far East Russia. So von Bismarck, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Investigation Agency and a colleague had flown halfway around the world to investigate how that illegal wood was being laundered for export. They wanted to know who was buying it.

As von Bismarck walked toward the warehouse, he saw dozens of pallets of wood flooring. Drawing closer, he was stunned to discover that they were stamped with three incriminating words: Virginia Mill Works, a proprietary brand of the retail lumber company Lumber Liquidators. Which begged the question: Did the heads of Lumber Liquidators know they were profiting from the destruction of Russia’s plundered forest, home to some of the last wild Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) and Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis)?

Under the guise of securing supplies for their Delaware-based family hardwood business, von Bismarck and his colleague toured multiple facilities, peppering the Xingjia Wood Industry Company officials with questions. How did they source their wood? Where did it come from? The surprisingly frank answers detailed an extensive degree of bribery and corruption. They also confirmed what von Bismarck had suspected: Lumber Liquidators was fully aware of the deception and knowingly selling fraudulent products.

The Environmental Investigation Agency eventually turned their evidence over to the U.S. Department of Justice, which conducted its own investigation. In 2015, Lumber Liquidators pled guilty to violating the Lacey Act, a U.S. statute that protects wildlife and plants against illegal harvest. The Department of Justice ordered the wood-flooring giant to pay $13.15 million in fines. As part of the plea negotiation, the Justice Department’s lead prosecutor, Patrick Duggan, requested that $500,000 be earmarked to fund the creation of a device that could be used to quickly analyze timber imports and confirm their species and origin.

The illegal wildlife trade depends largely on passing off poached items as something else, Duggan says. He notes that if law enforcement officials had the ability to quickly verify the species that a product claims to be, by scanning its DNA, for example, they could more easily prevent fraudulent products from entering the market.

“Illegal wood looks just like legal wood, so it is easy to slide into the supply chain,” says David Gehl, a spokesperson for the Environmental Investigation Agency. What we need in the field is a tool to quickly assess whether a product is, for example, Russian or Chinese oak, he adds. This sort of technology would be particularly helpful to those who fight poaching on the front lines. The $19 billion illegal-wildlife trade is booming because poachers weigh the low risk of getting caught against the high potential rewards of getting away with their crimes, often landing on the more profitable side of the equation.

Of the funds earmarked for this project, $159,000 was awarded to Conservation X Labs, a start-up in Washington D.C. created around the idea that technology can offer solutions to urgent conservation and biodiversity problems. Not long ago, this was a rare perspective in the world of conservation, which traditionally took a lower-tech biological, ecological, and public-policy approach. Conservation X Labs is one of only a handful of groups developing targeted tech fixes: If a device can help prevent extinctions, they want to help make it a reality.

They also want to diversify the field of conservation itself. Right now, says Alex Dehgan, co-founder and CEO of Conservation X Labs, “The problem is that conservation is only filled with conservationists.” Dehgan, his co-founder Paul Bunje, and their small team are working to change this, deliberately building a working environment to nurture novel, bold conservation strategies with a specific focus on technology “hacks”—taking existing tools and devices and modifying them to fit new needs. “We’ll need a tribe of hackers, makers, economists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to help a sometimes-technophobic conservation community reverse the sixth mass extinction,” Dehgan says. In other words, they’re forcing a culture clash. The company, with support from the World Wildlife Fund, will soon launch an online digital makerspace, where these disparate groups can find each other and work together to create real-world devices, software, and other tech solutions that can chip away at some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.

The whole field of conservation is in dire need of an upgrade, Dehgan says. When the conservation movement began, proponents directed their energy toward creating parks and preserves. As the field evolved beyond protecting land, conservationists shifted into phase 2, assigning a dollar value to the often-overlooked ecosystem services, such as water purification or pollination of food crops, that nature provides for free. Now, Dehgan and Bunje say, it’s time for Conservation 3.0: innovative technologies and diverse solutions that tackle unaddressed causes of biodiversity loss, not just its symptoms. The device that Conservation X Labs is building with a total of more than $300,000 in funding (including additional money from Schmidt Marine Technology Partners)—a field-ready DNA scanner capable of quickly identifying species—is a prototype for this movement. It’s a device that delivers technology to improve conservation enforcement. But tech fixes like these face an uphill battle, both in development and adoption, and those in the conservation field are watching closely to see if they can succeed.

Conservation biologists have traditionally lacked the financial resources to develop technologies specific to protecting organisms and ecosystems. But as tech has become cheaper and more widely available, those in the field have begun adopting and adapting innovations such as satellite imagery, remote sensing, drones, and DNA sequencing.

“We have global problems—climate change, poaching, disease—that are getting exponentially worse, while the same old solutions are linear,” Dehgan says. He points to the steady increase in protected areas as one of those “old” solutions—a necessary trend, but not enough. Dehgan helped create Band-i-Amir, the first national park in Afghanistan, in 2009, but insists, “We need to think innovatively to end human-induced extinction.”

For example, he says, if someone were to bioengineer rhino horn—a substance prized in Vietnamese medicine for its purported power to cure cancer—they could flood the market, causing natural rhino horn to lose its value and, thus, its appeal to poachers. Gene-editing technology could be used to eliminate some of the diseases that are devastating frogs and other amphibians. And a DNA barcode scanner could sample water or soil to detect the presence of invasive species. While not all problems will have a tech solution, technology has the potential to fix some of them.

Dehgan and Bunje met through a mutual friend and quickly discovered their shared desire to use disruptive technologies to tackle big conservation issues. The two soon founded Conservation X Labs, which Dehgan now leads. It was a natural evolution, given their other roles: Bunje is a chief scientist at the XPRIZE Foundation. Dehgan, a former chief scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development, helped design challenge grants to stimulate technological solutions for a wide range of issues in developing nations. The two have seen firsthand how diverse groups can come together to solve tough problems.

To date, few individuals or organizations have had the resources, skills, and motivation necessary to bring high-tech conservation solutions to life. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is one exception. Driven by a desire to curb elephant poaching in Africa, Allen’s philanthropic company Vulcan Inc. developed a real-time tracking tool that allows wildlife managers to quickly respond to potential poaching activity. But game-changing technologies like these are rarely cheap. Conservation groups generally don’t have the money or expertise to pay for such targeted endeavors. By focusing on innovation, DIY creativity, and social networking in their makerspace, Conservation X Labs aims to circumvent the need for massive monetary investment.

The first step toward Conservation 3.0, Dehgan says, is to connect people who understand the problems with engineers who can create affordable, low-tech solutions. “Talent is everywhere; opportunity is not.” The Lumber Liquidators case gave Dehgan and Bunje the opportunity, incentive, and funding to bring their DNA scanner to life. It’s their chance to show what innovation can do for conservation.

Dehgan, Bunje, and others have been dreaming about a Star Trek-like, DNA-scanning device, capable of identifying any of millions of species on the fly, ever since University of Pennsylvania tropical ecologist Dan Janzen first called for something along these lines 15 years ago.

Janzen envisioned a reusable, 10-cent DNA sequencer that could, in seconds, accurately identify a species based only on a small tissue sample. “What I want is a tool that puts… about 7.5 billion people on the same team,” he said via email.

Tiny organelles, called mitochondria, exist inside living cells and have their own DNA. Within that mitochondrial DNA is a 648 base-pair region that can be used as a species identifier, like the barcode on a package. (In plants, researchers look at gene sequences in chloroplasts rather than mitochondria.) In fact, scientists call these sequences “barcodes.” A meticulously curated, $100+ million Barcode of Life Database, at the University of Guelph in Ontario, serves as an open-access reference library for the mitochondrial (and chloroplast) DNA of some 274,000 different species. Once the database took shape, Janzen felt it would only be a matter of time before entrepreneurs found a way to tap into it.

The Conservation X Labs’ device is a first step towards that lofty goal. Using the Barcode of Life Database, the team identifies sequences specific to individual species, then synthesizes these short stretches of DNA and freeze-dries them onto reference chips. It’s not quite Janzen’s dream of a tool capable of identifying any of millions of species. But unlike existing genetic sequencers, which are typically complicated and expensive, this scanner is fast, cheap, and easy to use. It is a hand-held, field-ready scanner, the first to swiftly verify, either yes or no, whether something is, indeed, the species someone claims it to be. That alone has utility in law enforcement. If you only need a Ford Fusion, there’s no need to build a Ferrari, says David Baisch, the molecular biologist leading the development of the DNA barcode scanner.

Last June, in a windowless basement at the University of Washington in Seattle, Baisch gave Dehgan and Bunje their first glimpse of the DNA barcode scanner prototype that he developed with Ph.D. candidate Hal Holmes. As the researchers presented their creation—an orange plastic box about the size of a package of Animal Crackers, packed with electronics—they cackled with delight, giddy to finally have in hand the thing they’d wanted to build for so long. When the device had warmed up, text messages popped up on its screen that betrayed the designers’ Nintendo fandom: “Ready Player 1?” and “Princess is in another castle.”

Baisch explained the procedures that he and Holmes were still developing for use of the scanner in the field. Users would place a tiny piece of ground-up tissue, contained in a drop of water, onto one of two kinds of microfluidic chips. One type of chip would provide a simple green (yes) or red (no) response when determining whether a species is what it purports to be. The more complex chip would identify whether the sample matches one of up to seven reference species.

Either type of chip slots into a cartridge that is then snapped into the scanner. Inside the scanner, the sample DNA is isolated and purified. A tiny heater warms the sample and, if a test subject’s DNA matches one of the reference species’ DNA contained on the chip, the sample DNA is amplified. A built-in camera takes a picture of the results (for use as evidence, if necessary), and an LCD screen on top of the device indicates which species, if any, is a match.

Turning the device over in his hand, Dehgan contemplated the future. Initially, each one of these small scanners would likely cost a few hundred dollars—an order of magnitude cheaper than existing options. But in order to encourage as many people as possible to use it, they would need to keep the price of each test chip as low as possible. When Baisch explained that the cost of each test would probably fall around $15, Dehgan had just one question: “How can we get costs down to $1?”

Five months later, on a gray November morning, Baisch and Holmes met with two officers from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. They wanted to show off the latest version of the device and demonstrate how it could help the officers’ conservation efforts. Holmes had 3-D printed the white case for this particular scanner in the lab just the night before.

The officers make a formidable team. The bald sergeant, Erik Olson, and his purple-tressed partner, Tylar Stephenson, are the stars of Rugged Justice, a reality TV show on Animal Planet. They are also part of a program that is chronically understaffed, which means they are chronically overworked. The new DNA barcode scanner could buy them some much-needed efficiency.

Seattle’s seaport is the fifth largest in the U.S. and sustains a $2 billion seafood industry. It’s also home to a significant amount of seafood fraud. Metric tons of fish and shellfish move through the port every day. On their journey from nets to dining tables the fish pass through so many different hands—fishermen, importers, processors, retailers, and restaurateurs—that it’s easy for someone along the way to boost their income by passing off a product as something it’s not.

A steady stream of published scientific studies, conducted on every continent except Antarctica, have used DNA analysis to look for incorrectly labeled seafood at wholesaler, importer, and retailer levels. In 2016, the international ocean advocacy group Oceana analyzed 200 of those studies. Out of 25,000 samples, 20 percent were not what their labels claimed. Such deception not only bilks consumers but hurts fishermen who play by the rules, driving down prices and potentially damaging fish stocks.

Olson’s team focuses on high-dollar busts, crimes that qualify as felonies. If, for example, farm-raised Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is falsely labeled as the more expensive and desirable Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), any sale totaling more than $5000 qualifies as a class C felony. To make such large busts, Olson’s team targets airports, freight operators, cold storage facilities, and restaurants. “I have been asking for something like this for years,” Olson says, pointing to the barcode scanner.

Each year, November marks the start of the busy season for Olson’s team of eight. From late fall through the Lunar New Year, seafood sales typically jump by up to 20 percent as suppliers take advantage of consumers planning elaborate holiday feasts and celebrations. That opportunity is hard for crooks to pass up.

A mere eight people can’t keep up with the crime rings, especially around the holidays. Lacking additional personnel, Olson hopes technology will buy him the edge he needs. With a DNA barcode scanner in hand, he says his officers could instantly determine whether a shipment is legitimate or should be seized. He paints this scenario: He is at the airport at 2:00 a.m., where a salmon shipment is scheduled to leave the tarmac in 45 minutes. “I have a short window to prove whether it’s in violation of title 77,” Olson said, referring to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Service code for harvesting, possession, and transport of species. He’s relieved to hear the new scanner should take less than 30 minutes to get him an answer.

Olson needs a gadget that can survive wet and slimy conditions and yet still capture all the details necessary to bring criminal charges—the date, time, location, and when the test began and ended. Most importantly, he needs straightforward output—a yes/no system in which a green light indicates that a species is what its owner says it is, and a red light indicates that it isn’t.

Baisch takes a chunk of frozen Chinook salmon, grinds it up with what looks like a cheese grater, and mixes it with water. He then places a droplet of the salmon sample onto the chip and hands it to Holmes, who pops the chip into the device. Olson gingerly touches the unit to check whether the heater inside is warming up. Olson and Stephenson check the scanner every few minutes, waiting for the signal. Ultimately, neither the red nor green light turns on. (Holmes blames it on a kink in the latest engineering design.)

The glitch doesn’t deter Olson, though. He requests eight units to be delivered as soon as they’re available, likely in March. “We are looking for needles in the haystack,” Olson says. He raps the table next to the scanner. “This makes that haystack significantly smaller.” He pauses. “Tylar and I are passionate about this job. We want the tools in hand to see it done right.”

A month later, Holmes has a de-bugged device that works—at least in the lab, with freshly made reagents. Two hurdles remain: ensuring the chip reagents remain shelf-stable until they are used months or years later, and making sure the device works properly under hot, dry, wet, or freezing conditions in the field. Holmes came to Conservation X Labs from medical diagnostics development, a field that typically has higher budgets, larger teams, and longer timelines from conception to approval. His current two-person team moves faster than he expected. “When I started this project 18 months ago,” he says, “I had no idea we’d be this close to a field-ready prototype so soon.”

Right now, the few portable gene-detection devices on the market are either cost-prohibitive—ranging from $2,000 to $8,000 for the device and around $100 per test—or the tests don’t have the species-specificity that law enforcement requires. Baisch isn’t yet sure what the final price tag of the Conservation X Labs’ scanner will be, but he aims to keep the tests to $15 to $20 each.

Keeping the price low will help get the technology into as many hands as possible, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a successful business model. That’s not something those in the conservation field have had to worry about. Historically, so much of their work has relied on government funding and donations more than it has on investors seeking healthy financial returns, says Eric Berman, a Seattle-based clean-tech investor who is familiar with Conservation X Labs. If they can’t turn a profit, he says, these innovations may never be mass-produced, no matter how great the technology.

Dehgan’s market strategy for the DNA barcode scanner highlights a range of species and a range of specialties—wildlife trafficking, seafood traceability, invasive species detection, food safety, and more. Although the project started as something that could help border agents combat illegal logging, the company made a calculated decision to start with fish.

“Fish is a dream,” Baisch says. “Wood is a nightmare.” Wood has very few living cells from which to extract DNA. Plus, it contains compounds, such as tannins and phenolics, which can interfere with DNA extraction. Fish, on the other hand, has plenty of DNA, and the high prevalence of seafood fraud made it a perfect first objective.

True to their mission to incentivize innovation in conservation technologies, Conservation X Labs plans to launch a roughly $10,000 cash prize this spring for a field-ready DNA-extraction protocol for wood. It will be among the first prizes to be showcased on their Digital Makerspace. By bringing together diverse perspectives and a range of expertise, they want to stoke enthusiasm and generate fresh ideas. “We’re bringing optimism back to conservation,” Dehgan says.

Conservation X Labs’ ultimate goal isn’t to build a single product, Bunje says. Rather, the company wants to create a community, one that works together to build bold solutions—some of which, they hope, will become marketable products. “The problems are dire and large-scale, and we need to focus on solutions that can be distributed widely,” says Cassie Hoffman, director of field operations at Conservation X Labs.

The DNA barcode scanner will be their first test of whether such cheap, powerful technology can be developed swiftly. Duggan, the prosecutor who litigated the Lumber Liquidators case, has been tracking Conservation X Labs’ progress on the DNA barcode scanner. So have the Environmental Investigation Agency folks like von Bismarck. Both groups think a DNA barcode scanner has the potential to change the world.

Bringing a DNA scanner into the surveillance process, von Bismarck says, “sends a signal to every forest of the world that the rules have changed.”

If it were possible to test each shipment, it would be a game-changer, says the father of three, who is eager for a tool that might lower the risks he and others face in the field. He recalls the nerve-wracking 3:00 a.m. trips to remote Russian forests, listening for chainsaws in the dark woods, attempting to catch illegal loggers in the act. The sound of nearby gunfire on one of those nights gave him more than enough of a taste of the violence involved in the act of stealing a forest.

Even more than his own risk aversion, though, von Bismarck’s greatest reason for wanting Conservation X Labs to succeed is to reduce the risks faced by other, increasingly vulnerable lives. One morning, he says, “When I stepped out of the car, I saw tiger tracks in the snow. It took my breath away—the realization of what’s at stake.”

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist based in Portland, Oregon. As a 2016 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, Gewin reported on food security and agricultural biodiversity. Her stories have appeared in Nature, Science, Discover, Washington Post, Modern Farmer and others. See more of her work at

Daniel Berman

Daniel Berman is a Seattle-based editorial and commercial photographer with a degree in visual journalism from Western Washington University. His work has been published internationally by clients such as The New York Times,, The London Telegraph, Die Welt am Sonntag and Forbes Argentina. Berman’s archive of celebrity portraiture is represented by Redux Pictures in New York. 

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