Genetic researchers are racing against time to protect the Earth's biodiversity—the rich variety of species we share the planet with. Environmental threats like pollution and loss of wild spaces are forcing many species into extinction.
Once a species is lost, it is lost forever. Losing species can also disrupt ecosystems in ways that hurt humans. For example, if certain birds are wiped out, the insects they eat may reproduce in greater numbers and destroy crops we rely on.
The loss of species also affects more than just today's environment. As biodiversity decreases, we are diminishing the stock of future species that could evolve from today's animals.
To help understand environmental threats and slow the rate of extinction, researchers are studying genes to answer two big questions. How are a species' genes affected by environmental threats? How many different species are there on the planet?
Surprisingly, the answer to this second question is still wide open. In the last 250 years, humans have only catalogued about one percent of the 100 million species biologists estimate we share the planet with. The other 99 percent may be catalogued within a generation.
With support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, researchers at the University of Guelph's Biodiversity Institute of Ontario and the University of Ottawa's Centre for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics are working to understand the changes in genes of individual species. They're also working to standardize a genetic ID tool known as a DNA barcode.
"This research can play a crucial role in monitoring and protecting the quality of our environment so that, 50 years from now, much of our biodiversity won't be something we can only see on the Discovery Channel," says Professor Donal Hickey, Director of the University of Ottawa Centre for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics. "Environmental Genomics is about using modern technology to help save the planet."
Saving the planet may, in part, rely on a tool that's familiar to shoppers—the barcode. Retail barcodes use numbers to create different labels, which are in turn assigned to the products we buy. Instead of using numbers, DNA barcodes rely on the genetic material in an organism to produce an individual barcode-style label. DNA barcodes will allow researchers to catalogue every living thing on the planet.
With a comprehensive DNA barcode system, ecologists working in the field could be sure that they were dealing with a particular organism. DNA barcoding can work with tiny pieces of biological tissue, such as a fish scale, and on organisms collected years ago.
Identifying specific organisms through barcoding will also contribute to the University of Ottawa's wider work on understanding how genes are affected by environmental changes. Monitoring changes in an organism's genes can help scientists determine if a species is at risk before an environmental problem gets out of hand. For example, if pollution is harming a population of fish, the most genetically susceptible fish will fail to reproduce and die off first. However, the more resistant fish could continue reproducing and the total numbers may not change that much.
This subtle shift may be hard to spot. But by monitoring changes in genes, researchers can identify threats to a population before the more resistant members are also affected and the whole group dies out.
But the biggest benefit of linking genetic research with protecting biodiversity will come from its ability to give us a deeper understanding of the species we share the planet with. The more we learn, the more we can work to protect the environment so that our grandchildren won't have to watch TV to experience the natural world.
"Environmental decisions made without all the facts may have serious consequences for life on Earth and for the future of humanity", says Hickey.
The research being carried out at the Centre for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics aims to provide the most precise information possible for protecting biodiversity—the rich variety of species we share the planet with. The Centre's work will contribute to a global system within which the distribution of species and their characteristics can be charted across the world and through geological time.
No matter what the cause or speed of species extinction, intelligent, scientifically informed policies in conservation efforts can be made only through knowledge of species and an understanding of their relationships. This interconnected view of the environment and how to protect it is supported by many researchers, including the hundreds of signatories to the Scientists for Species letter-writing campaign. The campaign lobbied the Government of Canada to beef up the Species at Risk Act.
The work of the University of Ottawa's Centre for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics is helping a number of companies in the private sector. These industrial companies often need reliable information to avoid costly environmental clean-ups and legal disputes.
For example, by closely monitoring changes in a species' genetic make-up biologists can identify an environmental threat before it's too late. Consider a case where wastewater from an industrial plant raises a river's temperature. Biologists could study genetic changes in fish to see if they were at risk, before any fish were seriously threatened.
The Centre's strong links to industry include funding from Domtar, Pioneer Chemicals, and Hydro Ontario. Their representatives meet regularly with the Centre's research team to discuss research projects and how they can be applied by industry.
The Centre also collaborates with the Canadian Network of Toxicology Centres—a collaboration that aims to develop a better understanding of toxic substances. The Network fosters cooperative research and education, and encourages links between scientists and industry.