Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

April 12, 2002

U of G scientists part of multi-million-dollar genome projects

Six University of Guelph researchers in the humanities, social and life sciences will benefit from more than $10 million in funding announced this week to support national genome research projects. The three projects involving Guelph researchers are supported by Genome Canada, the Ontario Genomics Institute and Genome Atlantic. In total, Genome Canada and its regional associations approved 34 new genomics research projects this week, worth $311 million. The Guelph projects include developing biological ways to control an insect that is devastating Canada's forests and forest industry; bringing ethical, legal and social considerations into genomics research; and identifying key genes responsible for the health and quality of potatoes.

"This is very exciting news for the University of Guelph," said Alan Wildeman, vice-president (research). "It involves researchers across a broad spectrum - from philosophy and consumer studies to molecular biology and genetics -- and provides them with the opportunity to lend their expertise and participate in the discovery of breakthroughs in genomics."

The Guelph professors are: Peter Krell, Department of Microbiology; David Evans and John Phillips, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics; David Castle, Department of Philosophy; and Karen Finlay, Department of Family and Consumer Studies. In addition, Basil Arif, a research scientist for the Canadian Forest Service and a Guelph associate graduate faculty member in the Department of Microbiology, is a collaborator.

Krell, Evans and Arif will study ways to better manage the population of the spruce budworm. "Over the past few decades, the spruce budworm has become one of the most devastating insect pests afflicting Canada's $20-billion-a-year forestry industry," Krell said. "If you fly over parts of Canada you can see gray patches where forests have been destroyed by the spruce budworm. The insect feeds on trees' needles and the trees eventually die." The insect's population is cyclic, Krell said, and "right now, we are at the beginning of a surge." With the adverse environmental effects of chemical pesticides, research has turned to controlling the pests through biological agents.

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 the environment. "But to do this, we need to know more about the biology and genomics of these viruses as well as their insect hosts," Evans said. 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 be able to be modified to change the insect's feeding behaviours and protect trees from severe defoliation. "We are using biology to fight biology in a sense," Krell said. The project has received more than $4.6 million and will help provide jobs for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

Another genome project 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. The 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," said Castle, a philosophy professor who has an affiliation with the university's Food System Biotechnology Centre (FSBC) to identify and assess ethical issues posed by research and development of emerging genomics technologies.

The researchers will study ethical strategies in multi-national 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 between agriculture, medicine and nutritional science," Castle said. "Nutrigenomics offers the potential to enhance the health and nutrition of millions of people." Castle, Finlay and Phillips will also conduct a case study on Guelph's "Enviropig" animals that produce manure that contains less phosphorus, making the pigs more environmentally-friendly. They will look at ethics, consumer concerns, public reaction and other related issues. "Our project has a very broad focus. It seeks a convergence in genomics, ethical, environment, legal and social research, across health, nutrition, agricultural and environmental applications of genomics and biotechnology," Castle said.

Castle 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 alumnus Keith Culver, director of the University of New Brunswick's Centre for Social Innovation Research on Intellectual Property and Regulatory/Enforcement Questions.

Peter Krell, Department of Microbiology
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 3264

David Evans, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 2575

David Castle, Department of Philosophy
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 3222

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs, (519)
824-4120, Ext. 3338.

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