Genome BC invests in genomics research across key economic sectors helping secure healthy markets for BC’s industry to thrive. Environmental protection is part and parcel to this effort. For example, researchers are using genomics to investigate how microbes can be used to remediate and reclaim lands from mining operations. Others work to address challenges around aquaculture and fisheries. Genome BC funded initiatives also look to protect BC’s agricultural and forest products from invasive pests and pathogens.
In the 3.8 billion years that life has been on the planet Earth, many more species have existed than are alive today. Life is continually evolving, and species are constantly challenged with changing environments. In BC, some of our most economically significant species are struggling to adapt to an influx of invasive pests and pathogens; the result of a changing climate and the increased movement of goods through our global market.
Phytophthora ramorum is a pathogen that can attack hundreds of species of trees and plants, causing diseases such as Sudden Oak Death and Sudden Larch Death. The Asian gypsy moth is an invasive insect that poses a significant threat to Canada’s forests, biodiversity and economy. Both have the potential to cause irreversible damage to the environment if they became established and could be responsible for losses of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Canadian economy, impacting agriculture, forestry, urban and natural environments, as well as international trade. Keeping them out is a top priority for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the regulatory agency in charge of plant protection.
Genomic tests are being used to identify pathogens and provide information on the pathogen lineage, which can be used to assess the success of eradication efforts and track the source of the pathogen. In 2017, a total of 1,598 plant samples were processed, out of which 27 samples tested positive for pathogens.
The detection and identification of these harmful intruders are complicated by the fact that they can be hidden and then transmitted within plants or soil, or as eggs that are impossible to identify accurately using traditional detection methods. With the incidence of pest occurrences on the rise, there was a growing need for innovative tools capable of a more rapid, efficient and accurate identification.
Since 2003, Phytophthora ramorum has been detected on plants in several retail and wholesale nurseries in the southern coastal area of BC resulting in costly treatment and loss of market. This can be avoided by identifying the pests, and their source, before they are loaded in a container, or on a ship and come in to contact with plants and trees in Canada.
Toward this effort, Genome BC and Genome Canada invested in research led by Dr. Richard Hamelin, a professor and forest pathologist at the University of British Columbia, to develop DNA detection tests targeting unique genome regions that provide a more specific level of identification than was previously possible for these harmful pests. The outcome of this investment is a suite of diagnostic tools that provide accurate, efficient, cost-effective, and on site detection of all life stages of these pests in order to support the CFIA’s plant protection mandate. Hamelin and his team have also developed portable assays that can be run on a hand-held device to perform diagnostics directly in the field. This tool could significantly enhance the CFIA’s regulatory capacity by enabling rapid, on-the-spot identification of invasive species and pathogens.