All in the Genes
Genomics and microarray facility in the Department of Molecular
Biology and Genetics offers state-of-the-art technology
for campus researchers
David Evans uses the genomics and microarray facility to
study how poxviruses infect host cells.
Photo by Martin Schwalbe
For a look at U of G's role in the growing field
of genomics research, take a peek at the rather unprepossessing
equipment in a laboratory just down the hall from the Axelrod
Building office of Prof. David Evans, chair of the Department
of Molecular Biology and Genetics.
Unprepossessing, yes, but it packs a wallop when it comes
to offering state-of-the-art technology for campus researchers
investigating the genetic makeup of everything from the
bane of the Canadian forestry industry to boar taint in
Last fall saw the delivery of the last of four main pieces
of equipment, worth a total of about $500,000, to the recently
established genomics and microarray facility, which is located
in two labs in Evans's department.
The instruments sequence DNA, process DNA samples, prepare
DNA slides and scan microarrays to analyse patterns of gene
expression. Operated by technicians Margaret Howes and Jason
Ho, the equipment serves the needs of customers from four
colleges - CBS, CPES, OVC and OAC - as well as researchers
from the Food System Biotechnology Centre.
"It's becoming a very common discovery tool,"
says Evans, referring to slides or microarrays that let
him and other researchers study patterns of gene expression.
About 12 faculty members or groups are now using the facility's
DNA array technology to study expression of thousands of
genes in certain plants and animals, as well as in other
organisms such as viruses and yeast. Among their goals:
learning how genes control development, what goes wrong
during disease, how pathogens infect their hosts and how
to develop useful new drugs.
Those goals are fuelling interest in genomics research
at labs in Guelph and across Canada, says Evans. He and
five other U of G researchers were among the Canadian scientists
who received a total of more than $300 million this month
for national genome research projects from Genome Canada
and other organizations.
Evans studies how poxviruses infect host cells, including
what virus genes are turned on and off during infection
and how that process is regulated.
"I'm interested in seeing whether chip technology
can identify the genes expressed throughout different stages
in the process of virus infections," he says.
He is also a participant in a Genome Canada-funded project
on spruce budworm with Prof. Peter Krell, Microbiology,
and Basil Arif of the Canadian Forest Service. This project
will use gene sequencing to study genes involved in the
development of the spruce budworm, a major pest in the forest
Having access to facilities in the Axelrod Building makes
this work cheaper and easier than sending samples to other
Ontario research institutions, Krell says.
Botany professor Barbara Mable uses the microarray facility
to study molecular changes in yeast cells, such as those
used in the fermentation industry.
She's especially interested in how gene expression in yeast
changes when an entire genome is duplicated, a process called
Mable also expects to use the equipment to study genome
duplication in plants.
"Polyploidy is very common in plants, but may have
significant effects on the breeding system, ecology and
demography of plants in which it arises," she says.
"The microarray facility will enable us to compare
changes in gene expression across a vast number of genes,
something that wasn't possible using previous methods."
In the Department of Animal and Poultry Science, Prof.
Jim Squires and graduate student Jennifer Stewart use the
scanner to examine slides spotted with thousands of different
samples of DNA, to identify pig genes that cause boar taint,
a problem in meat quality from uncastrated males.
Squires uses arrays containing up to 1,700 human genes
obtained from the Ontario Cancer Institute.
"No porcine chips are available," he explains,
adding that genetic and biochemical similarities between
humans and pigs make this kind of cross-hybridization between
human and pig DNA sequences possible. "We're using
humans as a model for pigs, which is kind of an interesting
twist. You can learn a lot by looking at what's known in
one species and seeing whether it applies to others."
Having identified several key genes using microarrays and
other methods, he plans to investigate which genes are most
important in boar taint and identify genetic markers for
animals without the problem. He says the pork industry is
interested in his work for breeding programs for pigs that
would grow leaner without the need for castration. Although
castration prevents boar taint, it also reduces lean meat
yield and feed efficiency.
Identifying promising breeding lines through genomics would
allow producers to sidestep these problems, he says. "You're
improving productivity, but also improving animal welfare
at the same time. It's kind of rare."
Squires has also worked on microarrays with OVC faculty
in the Department of Pathobiology and the Department of
"I've been hoping that, as part of this process, we
would put together a users' group for microarray technology,"
he says. "If you come up with a new way of improving
sensitivity or reliability of methods for data handling,
then it could be shared around the group."
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