For Canada’s 150th birthday, a team of researchers wanted to give something back by celebrating the country’s national symbol and mapping the genome of the Canadian beaver.
Like so many great eureka moments in science, it checked a number of crucial boxes. Nobody had mapped the genome of the Canadian beaver; the sequencing method used would provide greater insight into the genetic clues to some diseases and disorders; it had exceptional and timely appeal for a broad audience; and it would be the perfect way for Canadian genome scientists to mark Canada’s 150th birthday.
When Dr. Stephen Scherer, director of The Centre for Applied Genomics at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, and his colleague Dr. Si Lok decided to map the genome of Canada’s national animal, it was partly a patriotic bid to ensure that a genetics team from another country didn’t beat them to it in the global enthusiasm to map the genomes of every living organism from aphids to zebras.
"The de novo sequencing method, first used to sequence the beaver genome, when applied to humans will give us better clues to the genetic links to autism spectrum disorder and potentially other disorders and diseases."
- Dr. Stephen Scherer, director, The Centre for Applied Genomics
While they could have chosen any mammal on which to test their new de novo sequencing method, the researchers chose Ward, a 10-year-old beaver at the Toronto Zoo and mate of June (as in the Cleavers, of Leave It To Beaver fame), because of his symbolic value. This sequencing method allows the scientists to assemble a gene map from scratch rather than aligning a partial map with a reference genome. The results, published in the online edition of G3: Genes | Genomes | Genetics in January 2017, hold tremendous promise for research into the genetic markers of certain diseases and disorders, because de novo mapping enables scientists to find new types of genetic variations that aren’t revealed by current technologies.
Dr. Scherer, who is also a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and director of the McLaughlin Centre at the University of Toronto, is one of the world’s most respected scientists. In 2014, Thomson Reuters Intellectual Property & Science selected him as a citation laureate in physiology or medicine – a "Nobel class"-worthy distinction. Genome Canada has funded his Autism Genome Project, an unprecedented initiative bringing together leading geneticists, clinicians and genome scientists undertaking autism research in Canada, and linking to 170 scientists from 10 other countries worldwide.
While sequencing the genome of the Canadian beaver may sound like the nerdiest science experiment ever, the very serious project could change the lives of millions of families affected by autism and other disorders and diseases now and in future generations. And it served the public education purpose of engaging citizens in the process.
“I heard from more than 200 Canadians, including Canadians in the U.S.A., how proud they were that the Castor canadensis genome was done in Canada,” said Dr. Scherer. “It’s our national icon, our heritage, so we should be the ones to decode what is our own.”
The sequencing of the beaver was carried out by The Centre for Applied Genomics at SickKids in Toronto, in partnership with the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto and the Toronto Zoo. The Centre for Applied Genomics is one of 10 genomics technology platforms across Canada that Genome Canada supports. (Since 2000, Genome Canada has invested more than $30 million in The Centre for Applied Genomics, which has leveraged more than $9.8 million in co-funding for the platform.)