DNA Ecosystem Health Project Nabs Attention, Support

January 21, 2013 - News Release

“Early warning systems” using DNA to track environmental health, especially in protected areas near Canadian oil sands, mining and hydroelectric projects, are the goal of a major research project led by University of Guelph scientists.

The project is one of three major research initiatives highlighted in the latest annual report of the Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI). It’s funded by a three-year, $3.2-million grant from Genome Canada through the OGI as well as support from Environment Canada and Parks Canada.

Biomonitoring 2.0” is the first large-scale project using genetic data to track the health of entire ecosystems, said project leader Mehrdad Hajibabaei, an integrative biology professor and a principal in U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO).

Scientists are already using the project – based on DNA barcoding developed in Guelph – to help assess environmental threats in Wood Buffalo National Park.

Spanning northern Alberta and part of the Northwest Territories, the 45,000-square-kilometre park is home to North America’s largest wild bison population and the world’s only natural whooping crane nesting site.

Referring to nearby oil sands, Hajibabaei said, “This gives us a national-level sampling site that is linked to national-level economic activity. A genomics layer has been introduced to a very important biomonitoring program linked to the oil sands.”

Parks Canada and Environment Canada began collecting water and soil samples from the park in 2011.

Guelph’s BIO scientists use powerful DNA sequencing machines and computers to identify genetic material from thousands of species in those samples, from wolves and caribou to bacteria.

Especially critical are “sentinel” or indicator species sensitive to environmental change. The presence or absence of mayflies or caddisflies, for instance, can tell scientists about changes in water quality that might be linked to industrial activity.

Hajibabaei said new genomics technology allows scientists to use telltale DNA snippets to ID creatures faster, more cheaply and more accurately than traditional identification methods used in environmental monitoring.

More use of biomonitoring around the Alberta oil sands was encouraged in an Environment Canada report in early 2012.

Beyond Wood Buffalo, scientists are testing use of DNA biomonitoring in Ontario in the Humber River watershed.

Hajibabaei said scientists are seeking agency partners to further develop the use of genomics in environmental monitoring. Since about 2007, U of G has tested samples for the Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network, an Environment Canada program to assess the health of freshwater ecosystems.

The Wood Buffalo project involves researchers at other universities and colleges as well as national agencies.

More information is available online.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or lhunt@uoguelph.ca; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, or kgonsalves@uoguelph.ca.

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