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Celebrating DNA Day 2020

Friday, April 24, 2020

It’s only April and 2020 is already shaping up to be one for the history books. A lot has changed in a short amount of time; the disruption has been jarring to say the least. Countries everywhere have implemented unprecedented health control measures and how we will recover – economically, socially and mentally – remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that it will take time and resources.

Like me, perhaps you too have been cherishing your walks outside and quietly observing signs for the arrival of spring (yes, even in Ottawa). The dependable cadence of life emerging from another Canadian winter has been reassuring against a landscape of uncertainty. Here, the snow is (mainly) gone and everywhere I see signs of new life. The conductor behind this annual orchestra is deoxyribonucleic acid—DNA, the incredible molecule that helps determine the characteristics of every living being.

Tomorrow, April 25, also happens to be DNA Day.

The 1953 discovery of the double helix chemical structure of DNA is one of the most remarkable scientific discoveries ever. It opened our eyes to so much: how genes might work, how they can be passed faithfully from one generation to the next, and how that replication might generate the mutations at the heart of evolution by natural selection. It literally launched the era of modern molecular biology. Since then, our understanding of the molecular basis of life has moved in leaps and bounds, and we have gained powerful knowledge and tools, including the ability to read—and interpret—the full complement of an organism’s DNA – it’s genome.

We’re putting that ability to use. Genomics generates powerful information that is improving our well-being and our economies. Genomics is at the heart of precision health, modern agriculture, cleantech, and much environmental remediation. Notably, it is proving to be a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19. 

Amid this pandemic, researchers are urgently investigating various approaches to understand the novel coronavirus genome and how it interacts and behaves in humans. In the science community, we are using that knowledge to collate vast data sets and develop better testing and therapeutic strategies. At the same time, we are also gaining new insight into the vulnerabilities of our economies, healthcare systems, and social supports.  

Genomics is at the very core of much of this new knowledge, which is why Genome Canada has acted fast to contribute to the effort to contain COVID-19. Along with the six regional Genome Centres, we have launched rapid response research opportunities and convened CanCOGeN, a national genomics network of leading researchers, public health agencies, and gene sequencing centres focused on generating and analyzing human and viral sequence data related to COVID-19. We are working closely with other organizations and initiatives that live at the interface of research and public health. And we are confident that Canadian ingenuity will help drive an effective solution to the challenges we face.

We will continue to work hard to ensure that science remains central to the pressing solutions we need now and those that will help rebuild our economy, society and healthcare systems.

It goes without saying that our lives will be changed by the events of 2020. We will face this challenge with the same resolve and effort we’ve used to face previous challenges (and will use to face future ones). I hope that if at times this all feels like too much (and it is), you can look upon the tentative but unmistakable arrival of spring to remind you that despite everything, life persists. It is in our DNA.