Using only a garbage bag containing blood and a deer carcass, biologists at Trent University's Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory in Peterborough were able to uncover evidence that lead to nabbing three poachers in 1990. Their secret technique? DNA fingerprinting.
Since the database was created in 1985, over 1,000 cases have involved DNA as evidence. But the Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory database, which extracts DNA from animal tissue and blood samples, isn't just an enforcement tool. It uses genetics to understand wildlife population structure, disease management, and the conservation of endangered species. "It allows us to interpret if some populations are becoming isolated, or if there are more animals there than we originally thought," says Bradley N. White. White is the Director of the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre (NRDPFC) at Trent University in Peterborough, and a Professor in the University's Department of Biology.
DNA touches every facet of life. "In 80 years or so when we're all dead, the only thing that goes on is DNA. Our wildlife natural resources provide a huge economic base for Ontario, with tourism, fishing, and hunting as well as the aesthetics of nature," says White. "It's the transmission of that DNA into the next generation which is the heritage we give to our children."
Having a comprehensive genetic database also allows researchers to track diseases in animals that are potentially lethal to humans. Currently, Cathy Cullingham, a Ph.D. student specializing in molecular biology and genetics at Trent University, is helping to track the mechanism of the spread of rabies in raccoons. Over the last four years, more than 150 rabid raccoons have been found between Kingston and Cornwall, Ontario. "The objective of this study is to use the genetics of raccoon populations and the rabies virus to build an accurate model of how rabies spreads. It will aid in decision making meant to control and eliminate raccoon rabies."
This type of control becomes all the more important when we consider that raccoons, constantly pecking in our garbage cans, are becoming an urban animal. Toronto has one of the highest densities of raccoons in North America. It doesn't take long to realize that the risk of exposing humans to diseases like rabies—through raccoons—is quite real. It's also potentially fatal and costly. In fact, it costs up to US$3,000 per post-exposure rabies vaccination in humans.
To save endangered and threatened species, the NRDPFC is profiling about a dozen species including wolves, moose, deer, black bears, caribou, and elk. These profiles will help manage information on the impact of roads, as well as the effect of urban expansion on each species' population.
But it's the use of robots that help to make the NRDPFC seem like a science fiction movie. The robots can organize and extract thousands of DNA from tissue samples in a matter of days. "If I had done that many samples in graduate school 10 years ago, it probably would have taken two to three years to finish the job by hand," recalls Paul Wilson an Assistant Professor at Trent's Department of Biology, and a researcher at the NRDPFC.
Wilson and his colleagues are excited about the future of DNA profiling, which they both say is cutting edge and revolutionary. "When I got here in 1997, this would not have been the place to come for DNA research," says Wilson. "But since then, based on what we have managed to accomplish, I can't think of a better place where I could maximize my research."
The landscape DNA database has a variety of applications. Not only does it allow for better management of our natural resources, the database helps monitor overall environmental health and how that affects humans says Paul Wilson, Assistant Professor at Trent University's Department of Biology and a Research Scientist at Trent's Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre (NRDPFC). The NRDPFC is currently looking at polar bear populations and the effect of climate change on them. "Polar bears are a good indicator species in terms of global conditions that are going to impact people."
What are some other benefits of the database? In Ontario, selling wild game for commercial use is illegal. Because the meat has not gone through inspections, it poses a health risk to the public. Yet the game still makes its way into cities. "Sometimes deer or moose meat is found in sausage—where you can mask it by spicing it up with honey or garlic," says Bradley N. White, Director of the NRDPFC and a professor at Trent University's Department of Biology. "The database can help investigators track down where the meat came from and eliminate the risk to consumers."
In the future, investigators will be able to pinpoint the origin and spread of animal and forest diseases using the NRDPFC database. For instance, if Canada had a national cow DNA database, determining where mad cow disease originated would be faster and more reliable than present tracking approaches. Using today's system, tags monitor each animal. But tags can fall off.
The database could also be used to assess the impacts of urbanization and further road development. "We're intrigued with what the 401 and the median wall from Toronto to Brockville are doing to isolate populations," says White. "As Toronto moves north and roads are more significant to North Bay, it's less likely that large mammals like bears and wolves will survive in Ontario because of population fragmentation."
The NRDPFC infrastructure is also opening up new avenues for researchers. The Centre provides research facilities for more than 12 faculty members at Trent University (Biology, Environmental Resource Studies, Nursing, Chemistry, Anthropology, and Forensic Science departments) and Fleming College, as well as scientists from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
The Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre works with a number of groups from the academic, private, and government sectors.
Each summer, the Ontario Provincial Police partners with youth at CSI Peterborough, a DNA Camp at Trent University. "They set up mock murder scenes and help the kids," says White. Conversely, Trent University has provided a scientific methods course for OPP Identification Officers, which teaches officers how to apply statistical approaches to analyze finger, shoe, and tire prints.
The reciprocal relationship extends to the commercial sector. Maxxam Analytics Inc, which helps with research and DNA extraction, also profiles the overflow of DNA for crime cases coming from the RCMP.
Find out more about how the private and local sectors are using DNA profiling in everyday life, visit the Greater Peterborough Innovation Cluster.