Genomics offers opportunities for Northern research

Posted on February 11, 2020

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Miniaturization and connectivity are opening new opportunities for genomics research designed to tackle Northern questions from industrial contamination to wildlife and fish populations, from water quality to the effects of climate change.

Tools such as portable DNA sequencers online data analysis are examples of opportunities where Northerners must take the lead, said Andrew Applejohn, senior science advisor with the Government of the Northwest Territories.

He explained the territorial government has a much broader role than is typical of other jurisdictions. This is reflected in its Knowledge Agenda, which addresses not only the science questions relevant to the North, but who should be included and what should be considered. Community needs and traditional knowledge figure prominently, for example.

“We needed to change the perspective of researchers and research funders and clearly state, as a government, we are a funder, a practitioner, a generator, a communicator and a regulator of the results of research in our own territory,” he said.

Applejohn was speaking to a group of researchers from academia, government and industry gathered in Yellowknife on November 28 and 29, 2019. Expertise included areas such as wildlife biology, water quality, ecotoxicology, genomics, and bioinformatics. Representatives from the Northwest Territories and the Prairies attended in person, with a wider audience taking part online from across Canada.

Organized by Genome Prairie, the aim was to brainstorm ideas, make professional connections and ultimately encourage teams to put together proposals for the Large-Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP) competition, a major Genome Canada funding opportunity.

Applejohn explained the immense size and sparse population of the North make for unique challenges. For example, the Northwest Territories is roughly 1.2 million square kilometres – just a little less than the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined. This vast space is home to about 44,000 people in 33 communities, with half the population living in Yellowknife.

Rob Annan, president and CEO of Genome Canada, said the organization’s mandate fits well with the ideals of Knowledge Agenda.

“From the very beginning, we have had a focus on putting genomics into the hands of those that can use it,” he said. “Embedded in all we do is a real interdisciplinarity of science and social science and other ways of knowing.”

Annan explained that Genome Canada uses a co-funding model, that is, it’s contributions must be matched or exceeded. One of the aims of this approach is to encourage partnerships and research that is relevant to them.

Genome Canada, through its six Genome centres across Canada, has developed partnerships with academic institutions, industry, public sector institutions such as hospitals, and provincial governments. One piece that is missing, Annan said, is territorial governments – something the organization hopes to change with the next LSARP round.

Funding programs are available for every step in the research process, from discovery and foundation tools to support it, to technology development and even pre-commercialization. 

One of the goals is to help develop genomics talent. One example is a partnership with another national organization, Mitacs, with their Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP), to link academia and industry to provide opportunities for graduate students.

March 2020 is the deadline for proposals for the latest Genome LSARP competition, themed “Genomic Solutions for Natural Resources and the Environment.” $25 million is available to be distributed in grants of $1 million to $3 million, which must be matched by partners.

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