Introducing Canada’s giants of genomics

Introducing Canada’s giants of genomics

How Canadian scientists are helping to lead the genomics revolution
November 20, 2014

Genomics is more than an emerging frontier of scientific inquiry; it is part of an ongoing technological revolution that promises to transform how we interact with all life on Earth — from the tiniest pathogens to the largest mammals and everything in between.

i2eye with Bartha Maria Knoppers

In 2009, stem-cell research in the United States got a boost. One of Canada’s leading bioethicists looks at what this meant for stem-cell research in Canada. July 2009

The study of genomics probes the interrelationship of genes to identify their combined influence on the growth and development of organisms. In recent decades, this field has advanced at breakneck speed thanks to the emergence of unprecedented computing power and technologies, which enabled the 2003 sequencing of the human genome. (The latter having revealed what is, in effect, the complete cellular operating system for Homo sapiens.)

From the outset, the evolution of Canada as a global centre for genomics research was unique, says pioneering lawyer, ethicist and genomics policy-maker Bartha Knoppers, (ABOVE), director of McGill University’s Centre of Genomics and Policy. “Most agencies funding genomics in the world have separated agriculture, environment, health, and so on,” she says. “In Canada, we decided to be unique, not only in encouraging multidisciplinary approaches to genomics but in funding genomics research across all living organisms.” This has been achieved through the establishment of Genome Canada and its broad research focus in 2000.

Today, there are genomics researchers across Canada who are nothing short of “giants” in their areas of focus. At the University of Guelph, Paul Hebert’s DNA “bar-coding” system, which uses a short section of DNA from a standardized region of the genome of every living thing to identify different species — similar to the way a grocery store scanner uses a bar code — is now becoming a global system to identify all life on Earth and to enable the discovery of new species.

Barcoding life

Churchill, Man., is the epicentre of a project that aims to identify every species on Earth
August 2010

The work of McMaster University molecular evolutionary geneticist and biological anthropologist Hendrik Poinar to sequence the genome of the pathogen that caused the medieval European Black Death; to probe the origins of HIV; and to reconstruct the extinct woolly mammoth genome has made him something of a scientific pop-culture icon.


WATCH: Hendrik Poinar's TED talk about the quest to engineer a creature like woolly the mammoth

As Canadians continue to innovate, the tools at their disposal will continue to improve. Advances in next-generation DNA sequencing promise to deliver ever faster, cheaper and more reliable results that are simpler to disseminate. So-called nanopore technology will soon allow researchers to untangle and decode DNA strands, nucleotide by nucleotide, with a device the size of a memory stick. Supercomputing will be forced to evolve in lockstep to manage the growing mountains of data generated by such new technologies, necessitating the creation of “cloud stations” accessible by researchers anywhere on the planet.

In this in-depth report, we profile four Canadian “giants” of genomics. True to Canadian form, their research achievements are wildly divergent, representing breakthroughs in everything from cancer and computational biology to forestry and toxin-breathing microbes. What they all share is a leadership role in a global genomics revolution that is just starting to gather momentum.

Christopher Pollon is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.

  • Gary Bader cringes when he recalls life as a biochemistry undergrad, particularly the toil of memorizing immense amounts of information about cellular mechanisms. “Given my interest in computers, I always dreamed it would be great to put all that information in a computer and have it available at your fingertips,” says Bader. “Later, I learned it was not just a matter of having it at your fingertips — you could actually use it to make discoveries.” As a graduate student in 1998, Bader was among the first to become involved in an international effort to create a “cell map” —...
  • On Jörg Bohlmann’s first day as a post-doctoral fellow at Washington State University in 1995, his supervisor asked for a favour. Would he take a few months off his proposed study — researching the genetics of antimicrobial menthol found in peppermint — to help identify genes involved in the chemical defences of conifer trees? He reluctantly agreed. “Twenty years later, I’m still fascinated working on conifer trees,” laughs German-born Bohlmann, who came to The University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2000. Since then, working in the CFI-funded Michael Smith Laboratories on the...
  • It’s invisible to most of us, but one of the most prevalent organic groundwater contaminants on Earth is something called trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic chlorinated solvent that was in wide industrial use between 1940 and the early 1970s. “It’s everywhere,” says Elizabeth Edwards, professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto, who learned about TCE as a PhD student at Stanford University and when working for a private-sector environmental remediation company in Ontario. “It seems that every industrial manufacturer on the planet that has been...
  • To hear Stephen Scherer tell it, his path to becoming director of The Centre for Applied Genomics at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and one of the world’s most accomplished autism researchers was pure serendipity. It was the late 1990s, and Scherer was a staff scientist at SickKids working as part of the Human Genome Project, mapping and sequencing chromosome 7, a region that soon after was shown to hold genes linked to autism. “I didn’t know what autism was at the time, but I learned our hospital was seeing hundreds of these kids each year,” says Scherer. “I...
  • Jean Bousquet and his team of graduate students in the Department of Forest and Timber Sciences at Université Laval use genomic tools to identify portions of the spruce genome that determine insect resistance and adaptation to climate change. His team works closely with Genome Canada, Genome Quebec, FP Innovations and other government and industry partners....