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Prof to use DNA technology to prevent habitat loss

Using Canada's largest national park as his laboratory, a University of Guelph professor will test cutting-edge DNA technology that could change how we monitor and protect the environment.

Prof. Mehrdad Hajibabaei received a $3-million grant from Genome Canada through the Ontario Genomics Institute to conduct research in Wood Buffalo National Park, considered one of Canada's most valued ecosystems.

Hajibabaei's grant proposal tied for the No. 1 spot in Genome Canada's Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition targeted at environment and forestry.

"This funding will have a significant impact on helping prevent catastrophic habitat loss," said Hajibabaei, an integrative biology professor and director of technology development at the Guelph-based Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.

Located in northeastern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, Wood Buffalo National Park is a world heritage site and the second-largest natural protected area on Earth. But its remoteness and protected status are not enough, Hajibabaei said.

"It's increasingly threatened by climate change and encroachment from industrial development such as oil sands, mining and hydroelectric dams."

Hajibabaei's team of researchers comes from five universities in four provinces, as well two federal agencies, Environment Canada and Parks Canada. They will use state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technology and computing to "biomonitor" the park's freshwater and soil habitats.

They'll gather genomic information to study the mix of species from bacteria to animals and plants, monitor changes and measure ecological risk. They'll develop a wholly new DNA-based early-warning system to help pinpoint critical environmental stresses.

New technology called next-generation sequencing will allow the researchers to analyze millions of DNA sequences at once and identify species from bulk specimens taken from places such as soil, water and the bottom of rivers.

These sequences will be analysed using advanced computational methods. They'll be compared to a growing reference library of species-specific DNA sequences called DNA barcodes, an identification system developed by Guelph researchers.

"It will allow us to get a more complete picture of the biodiversity of the less visible yet critically important groups of organisms, including soil and water invertebrates, protists and other micro-organisms," Hajibabaei said.

Currently, labour-intensive biomonitoring limits the frequency, scope and intensity of sampling, especially in remote areas.

"Essentially, we are moving from a measure based on sentinel species to a holistic map of biodiversity in a given ecosystem," he said.

"We'll also for the first time be able to show the consequences of environmental change in a given environment in real time. This is a powerful shift from prediction of biodiversity changes and it will help us set environmental targets."

Scientists from numerous fields will use the information to conduct their research and to help protect ecosystems, Hajibabaei said.

"By integrating our new genomics tools and technologies into the existing Canadian monitoring framework, such as Environment Canada's Aquatic Biomonitoring Network (CABIN), we will better understand the health of our valuable national resources. Our project will set the stage for the application of genomics in biomonitoring at national and international levels."

Hajibabaei's project is among $23 million in grants that were unveiled today by the Ontario Genomics Institute to support genomics research in the province. In total, Genome Canada's Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition awarded more than $58 million to 16 projects across the country.


Contact: Mehrdad Hajibababei
519-824-4120 x52487
University of Guelph

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