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A University of Alberta-led project will focus on the genetic underpinnings of chronic wasting disease.

Janet Ng/University of Alberta

A comprehensive effort to detect and track a mad-cow-like epidemic as it rips through deer, moose and elk populations across western North America is one of the biggest winners in a $110-million funding wave unveiled by Genome Canada on Thursday.

The announcement includes $11.5-million for a University of Alberta-led project that will focus on the genetic underpinnings of chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disorder that first showed up in mule deer in Colorado some 50 years ago. More than a quarter of the deer in some areas of Saskatchewan are now believed to be infected and the disease is rapidly spreading westward across Alberta.

Like mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, chronic wasting disease is caused by a misfolded protein known as a prion.

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One prion can trigger normal proteins to transform themselves into additional prions, producing a cascade effect that eats away at the brains of infected animals.

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Because prions can survive in soil for many days, there is little to stop the disease from spreading between animals and, potentially, across species. While there is no sign yet of chronic wasting disease affecting humans, public-health agencies advise against consuming meat from infected animals.

"Currently, tests for prions are done on dead deer," said Debbie McKenzie, a biologist and co-leader of the project. "One goal of the project is the development of a rapid test for prions in live deer."

Such a test would allow for early detection and help efforts to contain the spread of the the disease, Dr. McKenzie said.

She said the project would also used genomics to study the prevalence of the gene that produces the prion-related protein, which will help predict transmission patterns in different animal populations.

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Among the biggest concerns for wildlife managers is whether the disease will make the leap into the caribou population, which carries the same gene.

"Chronic wasting disease has recently been found in reindeer in Norway, so the caribou herds are definitely at risk," Dr. McKenzie said.

David Coltman, an evolutionary biologist who is participating in the project, said the new funding will allow several groups who have separately been working on different aspects of chronic wasting disease to jointly tackle the problem. He added that the project will also engage with indigenous communities who rely on deer and related species as a food source.

Twelve other projects were named in the announcement, collectively the largest series of funding awards from Genome Canada this year. One, jointly led by researchers at the University of Montreal and Polytechnique Montreal, will develop a toolkit to help municipalities assess water sources affected by algal blooms. Another, a partnership between Queen's University in Kingston and the government of Nunavut, will use genomics to track changes in polar bear populations.

As the technology to rapidly sequence and compare vast amounts of DNA – not just from people, but from animals, plants and microbes – has grown faster and less expensive in recent years, the range of projects to which Genome Canada has channelled federal dollars has broadened beyond the biomedical sphere to encompass environmental science, natural resources, fishing and agriculture.

"It reflects where the scientists are – where the science is," said Genome Canada president Marc LePage.

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