Using genomics to protect Canadian freshwater

"Canada is a world leader in genomics research, producing dramatic breakthroughs in science, and in transforming our understanding of the world around us"

- Genome Canada

Genomics is concerned with understanding the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes, which are the complete set of genes of an organism.

In honour of World Water Day, which took place on March 22, we want to highlight Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) scientists’ involvement in a genomics project that recently received $867K in new funding from Genome Canada through the Genomic Applications Partnership Program. This project will help researchers better understand freshwater ecosystems to ensure our lakes and rivers remain healthy.

The project is titled “Assessing Freshwater Health through Community Based Environmental DNA Metabarcoding”. It is led by Dr. Mehrdad Hajibabaei from the University of Guelph in collaboration with ECCC’s Laura MacLean and Elizabeth Hendriks from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada. To protect vital freshwater resources, project partners will monitor aquatic ecosystems on a national scale with the use of advanced DNA sequencing (metabarcoding). With the help of local citizen scientists, researchers will collect and analyze samples of benthic invertebrates (aquatic insects that live in streams), which serve as excellent indicators of the health of these freshwater ecosystems. Using metabarcoding, researchers from the University of Guelph will be able to quickly and accurately identify the genetic makeup of these samples. The ability to assess aquatic biodiversity using genomics provides a powerful tool to detect and understand environmental change.

What sets this project from others is its Canada-wide scale, as well as its use of community- based monitoring. Representatives from WWF-Canada will train members of communities and Indigenous groups to collect samples from freshwater streams in their local areas.

With the negative impacts of pollution and climate change, it is more important than ever to protect freshwater resources. MacLean stressed the importance of access to timely and representative freshwater biodiversity data to make better and more informed decisions. Programs such as ECCC’s Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network (CABIN) have a strong track record of providing such information to decision makers, and will only be strengthened by the adoption of genomic methods.

Next Steps

This a 3-year project, which started at the end of October 2018. Summer 2019 will be a field season, which means WWF-Canada will train interested local community members and stewards to monitor, collect samples and summit their results to research scientists. Genomic analysis of samples and data interpretation will be ongoing, with final results expected in 2021.

If you are interested participating in this research and helping to collect samples, you can contact Laura MacLean (ECCC) or visit WWF for more information.

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