Introducing Canada’s giants of genomics
Introducing Canada’s giants of genomics
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.
Churchill, Man., is the epicentre of a project that aims to identify every species on Earth
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.
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.
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