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Report: Genomics Could be Key to Protecting Canada's Forests

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Genomics could play an important role in Canada's efforts to manage and protect its forests, including protecting them from pests, plants, and climate change, according to a new report from a Canadian government-funded initiative.

The report recommends launching five large-scale forest genomics projects, and funding them with between C$5 million ($4.6 million) and C$10 million.

The product of a Canadian Forest Health Genomics Initiative workshop held in March by the Ontario Genome Institute and other regional genomics centers, the report proposes using interdisciplinary genomics research across Canada to develop knowledge and tools that could help mitigate the threats facing the country's forests.

These threats include the spruce budworm, the mountain pine beetle, the emerald ash borer, climate shifts, and global consumption of renewable resources.

The workshop was organized by Natural Resources Canada, Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Research, Genome British Columbia, Genome Alberta, Genome Prairie, Ontario Genomics Institute, Genome Quebec, and Genome Atlantic.

"There is now widespread agreement among researchers in academia and government that genomics can play a critical role in protecting our forests and maintaining Canada's position internationally as the largest exporter of forest products," Genome British Columbia's President and CEO, Alan Winter, said in a statement accompanying the report.

Winter said that Canada contains ten percent of the world's forests, and that products from those forests account for C$33.6 billion of the economy, which he is around half the country's trade balance.

"It is estimated that invasive pine beetles have already cost the Canadian economy billions of dollars and lead to the devastation of 10 million hectares of pine trees in British Columbia," OGI's President and CEO, Christian Burks, added.

"Without mitigating strategies and tools, other destructive pests will continue to have a comparable impact on forests across Canada," he said.

Genomics can be used as part of a strategy to combat damages caused by invasive species, climate change, other threats, the CFHGI report advised.

In particular, the report said, genomics research can help identify key genes that confer adaptive traits against pest infestation, disease, or environmental changes; identify genes or genetic features that provide an accurate diagnosis of invading organisms; identify targets for treatment and control of the infestation; monitor for invasive pests and diseases; and support risk assessment and regulation.

CFHGI also said that genomics can be used to address pest problems in Canadian forests by informing risk analysis activities; supporting policy-making on issues as pest containment; introducing and defining trade controls; pest monitoring; and in selecting traits such as resistance in breeding programs.

Genomics and related research areas, such as proteomics, bioinformatics, and others, also can be used to addressing ecosystem changes that are related to climate change, the report said.

These uses could include: mapping the genetic diversity within and between different tree species; identifying genes that confer hardiness and adaptation; identifying processes and genes affecting plant reproduction and genes that confer resistance to pests; and increasing basic knowledge of pests and pathogens that could be used in development of biocontrol agents.

As part of efforts to minimize the effects of invasive pests or other organisms, CFHGI argued, genomics can play a role in monitoring and detecting pests; increase knowledge about molecular interactions about the relationship between the tree, the pest, and other environmental factors; be used to track pest migration through the use of genetic barcodes; be used to identify markers for resistance genes; identify genes and genomic regions that give resistance and other adaptive traits to specific pests; and aid breeding programs by developing biomarker tools that can find resistant or other characteristics in seedlings.

Ongoing genomics projects that are targeting multiple pest species include: DNA barcoding through the Barcode of Life Data project, which currently has specimens from 55,000 species; genomic surveys of pests' natural pathogens and diseases such as fungal, viral, and bacterial infections using large scale sequencing; identification of genomic markers that are unique signatures during pest infestation and could be used to monitor tree health; developing strategies to manage epidemics; conducting population genetics studies of pests in order to discover more about their population diversity, distribution, and other factors that could help to monitor and contain their spread.

CFHGI advised tackling three "critical forest pest issues" that the paper's authors suggest could benefit from the integration of genomics. The "next steps," CFHGI said, would require five large-scale demonstration projects over the next three to five years that would have overall budgets of between C$5 million and C$10 million.

In summary, CFHGI said that coordination of efforts on the provincial, national, and international scales "will be critical to make the most efficient use of limited financial resources."

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