of Multi-Million-Dollar Projects
Studies to focus on spruce budworm, potatoes
and ethics of genomics research
U of G researchers are hoping to use biology to
stop a tiny insect that is devastating Canada's forests
and forest industry.
They're studying ways to introduce or enhance a virus to
limit the damage caused by the spruce budworm - and benefit
people and the environment as well.
"If you fly over parts of Canada, you can see gray
patches where forests have been destroyed by the spruce
budworm," says Prof. Peter Krell, Microbiology, one
of the project researchers. "The insect feeds on fir
and spruce needles, and the trees eventually die."
The project is one of three national genome research initiatives
involving U of G scientists that recently received more
than $10 million in support. It also involves Prof. David
Evans, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and
Genetics, and Basil Arif, a research scientist with the
Canadian Forest Service and an associate graduate faculty
member in the Department of Microbiology.
Over the past few decades, the spruce budworm has taken
a tremendous toll on Canada's $20-billion-a-year forestry
industry. Its population is cyclic, says Krell, and "right
now, we're at the beginning of a surge."
With the adverse environmental effects of chemical pesticides,
research has turned to controlling the pests through biological
agents. The project Krell, Evans and Arif are part of received
more than $4.6 million to develop viruses to stop the spruce
budworm from reaching its tree-eating caterpillar stage.
"We're using biology to fight biology in a sense,"
The three researchers are among six at Guelph who will
benefit from the funding announced by Genome Canada, the
Ontario Genomics Institute and Genome Atlantic. In total,
Genome Canada and its regional associations approved 34
new genomics research projects in April, worth $311 million.
A second project involving Guelph researchers aims to bring
ethical, legal and social considerations into genomics research,
and a third is looking to identify key genes that are responsible
for the health and quality of potatoes. Participating faculty
are Prof. David Castle, Philosophy; Prof. Karen Finlay,
Consumer Studies; and Prof. John Phillips, Molecular Biology
"This is very exciting news for the University of
Guelph," says Prof. Alan Wildeman, vice-president (research).
"It involves researchers across a broad spectrum and
provides them with the opportunity to lend their expertise
and participate in the discovery of breakthroughs in genomics."
Working with Arif and other scientists at the Great Lake
Forestry Centre of the Canadian Forest Service and Natural
Resources Canada in Sault Ste. Marie, Krell and Evans hope
to introduce a virus or find ways to make existing viruses
more effective against the spruce budworm. The virus would
be specific to the insect and not harm other creatures or
"But to do this, we need to know more about the biology
and genomics of these viruses as well as their insect hosts,"
They will concentrate on studying how the viruses, which
specifically infect these insects, function. The work involves
sequencing virus genomes, looking at the genes encoded by
these viruses and studying how these genes control infection.
For example, viral genes may possibly be modified to change
the insect's feeding behaviours and protect trees from severe
Also working on the project are graduate students and post-doctoral
The newly funded project on the ethical, legal and social
considerations of genomics research involves Finlay, Phillips
and Castle, who is the project's co-investigator. They will
work to reduce the "genomics divide" between developing
and developed countries. This project received more than
$2.8 million in support.
"We will be conducting research to ensure that the
benefits of the unfolding revolution in health and nutrition
genomics and biotechnology, which encompass health and agriculture,
are available to all," says Castle, who has an affiliation
with the Food System Biotechnology Centre to identify and
assess ethical issues posed by research and development
of emerging genomics technologies.
The researchers will study ethical strategies in multinational
pharmaceutical and biotech companies and make recommendations
for good business practices. Castle and Finlay will be involved
in developing ethical frameworks for genomics as applied
to nutrition or "nutrigenomics."
"This is an emerging science that blurs the traditional
distinctions among agriculture, medicine and nutritional
science," says Castle. "Nutrigenomics offers the
potential to enhance the health and nutrition of millions
For example, crops could be developed specifically for
developing countries to supply more nutrients, such as rice
that is enriched with vitamin A or iron. Diets can also
be tailored to meet specific nutritional needs of human
populations identified using genomics.
"But there are several ethical concerns that arise
in anticipation of nutrigenomics," he adds. Exploring
and addressing these concerns is part of the project.
Castle, Finlay and Phillips will also conduct a case study
of Guelph's "enviropigs," which produce manure
that contains less phosphorus, making the pigs more environmentally
friendly. The researchers will look at ethics, consumer
concerns, public reaction and other related issues.
"Our project has a very broad focus," says Castle.
"It seeks a convergence in genomics, ethical, environment,
legal and social research, across health, nutrition, agricultural
and environmental applications of genomics and biotechnology."
He is also involved in another large-scale genomics project
supported by Genome Canada in Atlantic Canada that received
$3 million in support. It will look at the biological targets
related to the health and quality of potatoes, which are
the fourth most important crop in the world and a major
staple food for more than a billion people. The project
will consolidate existing genetic information about potatoes
and work to identify an anticipated 10,000 further genes.
Castle will work with Guelph PhD graduate Keith Culver,
director of the University of New Brunswick's Centre for
Social Innovation Research on Intellectual Property and
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