For the first time, tree DNA sends a man to prison

A Washington man is going to prison for 20 months for running an illegal logging operation — and it was the DNA of a bigleaf maple tree that helped put him there.

In the first federal case to use tree DNA as evidence, Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, and his team of poachers stole the "highly prized" maple trees from the Olympic National Forest and sold the wood with forged permits, according to The Washington Post.

The chances of the DNA match being just a coincidence were found to be 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

From The Washington Post:

At the trial, a research geneticist for the U.S. Agriculture Department's Forest Service testified that the wood Wilke sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached maple trees that investigators had discovered in the Elk Lake area.

The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately 1 in 1 undecillion (1 followed by 36 zeros), the statement added.

Based on this evidence, the jury concluded that the wood Wilke had sold to local mills, had been stolen. The DNA evidence also proved that Wilke had unlawfully harvested and sold wood from seven other maple trees, but the precise locations of those trees have yet to be determined.

The novel tree genetics convinced jury members in Tacoma, Wash., following a six-day trial, to convict Wilke for conspiracy, theft of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, among other offenses.