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Double helix DNA strand. (Monika Wisniewska/iStockphoto)
Double helix DNA strand. (Monika Wisniewska/iStockphoto)

MEULIEN and DIRKS

What does genomics mean for the environment? Everything Add to ...

Pierre Meulien is president and CEO of Genome Canada. John Dirks is president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation.

All aspects of our health and well-being depend on a healthy environment. In Canada, we have a responsibility to protect our fresh water reserves, abundant forests and expansive agricultural lands. And we need to learn to extract our significant mineral and fossil fuels resources in an environmentally sustainable manner.

As many of these challenges we face are controlled directly or indirectly by biological systems, our understanding of how these systems work will help us find solutions. All life forms that contribute to these systems are in turn controlled by genomes made out of DNA (the building blocks of life), and genomics will be a key enabling technology we need to master in order to harness the power of biology to help us remediate many of the sites whose ecology we’ve compromised.

Canada is recognized as a world leader in genomics thanks to sustained federal investments through Genome Canada – more than $1-billion since 2000, matched by co-investments in genomics programs and projects by provincial governments, the private sector, non-profits and international partners.

We have developed formidable research capacity in this relatively young science and are at the leading edge of translating genomics applications across a range of sectors of importance to Canadians – health, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, and, increasingly, environmental protection and sustainable resource development in the energy and mining sectors.

Because Canada stands to gain considerably from integrating genomics into use in society across sectors and because many in the world are looking to us as leaders in this field, there will be great interest in a major international conference Canada is hosting. It’s called Genomics: The Power and the Promise.

The conference is focused on genomics with applications to the environment, health and other sectors, and is a unique assembly. There are, of course, leading practitioners and thinkers in science. But this gathering is more – it’s about inviting others in to see the potential of genomics and to seek guidance on its beneficial uses. So, there will also be policy-makers who grapple with society’s challenges, business people who grow the economy, academics who consider the issues critically and those from non-profits who seek to ensure benefits are shared equitably. We need a broad discussion because the science of genomics has such a wide range of applications.

For example, Canadian researcher Paul Hebert, who leads the International Barcode of Life Project – the largest research program ever undertaken in biodiversity science – will talk about progress in creating a “bio-literate world,” where every species can be identified in minutes. This is helping environmental stewards know whether a specimen is indigenous or an invader, at risk or in abundance. Is a fish fillet on sale in your local market from an endangered species or a healthy population, and is even the kind of fish it purports to be on the label? Genetic material tells the whole tale, arming us with accurate information and a tool for policy-makers to determine the best course of action for our society.

Canadian researchers are also working on genomics solutions for environmental and other challenges in Canada’s non-renewable resource sectors. They are identifying microbial life that remediates polluted sites, accelerating the transformation of industrial sites to a natural state much more quickly and safely.

Others are exploring the role of genomics in safeguarding our forests and enhancing health care, the environment’s impact on human health, and strategies for adapting to climate change.

There are few countries with as much to gain from genome science as Canada, because we have one of the largest, richest and most pristine environments on the planet. Our prosperity is linked to the health of our population, to resource development, to agriculture, to coastal industries. Understanding the nature of all life, through genomics, will make us better stewards of that environment and bring our society and economy in greater balance with those natural systems.

Genome Canada and the Gairdner Foundation are co-hosting and organizing Genomics: The Power and the Promise in Ottawa from Nov. 24 to 26.

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