Genomics is a comparatively young science and has the ability to revolutionize not only the way people think about health and disease, but also the way we interact with every organism on the planet – and Canadian universities have been involved in its discoveries from the start.
It all started with the Human Genome Project (HGP), the world's largest international collaborative research project, which began in 1990 and was completed in 2003.
With a mandate to map human DNA, the project was a game changer and opened up a whole other dimension to every living thing on Earth. Since then, scientists and researchers, in Canada and around the world, have been unpacking the HGP findings and applying them to areas such as health research, agriculture and even natural resources.
Leah Cowen, chair of the department of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto, likens genomics to being handed the instruction manual for any organism.
“We can now get the code for that instruction manual for any living thing,” Dr. Cowen says. “But there’s still a huge amount of work to go from instruction manual all the way through to understanding how things are put together and how they function.”
The expanse of this knowledge requires coming at it from all different angles and, for this reason, Canada's approach to genomics research has always been interdisciplinary.
Universities from all over the country tackle a number of research areas linked with genomics, but the main focus is in health care – an area of genomics for which Canadian universities such as McGill, UofT and the University of British Columbia are known. Specifically, cancer research is expected to benefit greatly from genomics, providing more targeted therapies and precision medicine.
“I think you could argue that this is a great Canadian strength,” Dr. Cowen says.
Other areas, such as global food security, are also reaping the benefits of the nation’s genomicists. Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan were part of an international genomics project involving more than 200 scientists from 20 countries given the task of completing the genome sequence for bread wheat – the wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome.
Earlier this year, they announced their success. By figuring out the molecular sequencing of a particular bread wheat, these scientists have allowed producers to identify economically important traits faster and increase yields.