Pest Defence

pest defence

New genomic detection tools will safeguard Canadian forests and farms from destructive pests and pathogens

Last revised: December 2015

University of British Columbia forestry professor Dr. Richard Hamelin and his partners at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have a “most unwanted list” — 50 invasive pests and pathogens that could cause an ecological and financial disaster if they infest the country’s forests and farms.

Alien species are responsible for annual losses of about $2 billion in Canada’s forestry and agriculture industries, but it can take days or weeks to identify problematic invaders at ports of entry. Species without morphological features, such as microscopic fungi, have to be cultured in a Petri plate to determine if they are a threat. Some only become virulent when they are inside a host.

Predictive new biosurveillance tools allow laboratory technicians to rapidly and accurately ascertain whether a pathogen will cause harm by amplifying and analyzing the DNA from a single cell, a development that will help keep Canada’s forests and farms healthy and productive in an era of climate change and increasing international trade.

“The key to any intervention is early action,” says Dr. Hamelin, who parlayed earlier Genome Canada-funded research exploring DNA-based diagnostic tests and forest pathogen sequencing into a three-year GAPP (Genomic Applications Partnership Program) project that is transferring this technology from the lab to the real world. “Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s very hard to contain it.”

"It's so rewarding when your research becomes a tool in somebody else’s hands." — Dr. Richard Hamelin, forestry researcher

The Asian gypsy moth (AGM) and a plant pathogen called Phytophthora ramorum are the targets of Dr. Hamelin’s GAPP project. The CFIA, a co-developer of the technology, will use lab-validated tests to intercept these destructive bugs.

“The AGM is not present in North America but keeps knocking at the door,” says Hamelin. “Our response has to be vigilant and national, because an invasive species can affect landscapes across the country.”

“The collaboration between partners has been phenomenal,” says Cameron Duff, the CFIA’s Executive Director of Plant Health Science. “This is absolutely essential, not only from a technological and intellectual perspective, but also because it is helping us develop an integrated network that is working to protect our forest resource base.

“The application of this technology will help us contend with significant risks and inform sound science-based decisions,” he adds. “It’s a game-changer. This project and platform are a foundation that can be expanded in the future.”

Invasive pests are estimated to cost the Canadian forestry industry alone over $700 million annually. The development of genomics tools in a project led by Dr. Hamelin, in partnership with government users from across the country, will develop a biosurveillance system that will be faster and more reliable. This is expected to save Canada’s forestry and agriculture sectors an estimated $374 million to $625 million over three to five years.

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