A team of government and university scientists are helping to protect Canada’s forests from invasive species through the use of state-of-the-art portable DNA-reading tools. The handheld devices are used in biosurveillance, the detecting and tracking of invasive species so as to eliminate them before they become established.
“We have a portable device that we are using now that can take a (DNA) sample on the spot like an insect egg or larvae and within hours you get an answer,” said Richard Hamelin, a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia, to the Vancouver Sun.
The new technology is part of an $8.6 million project funded by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Genome BC, Genome Quebec, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and FPInnovations, a non-profit research organization for the Canadian forestry industry. The project is focused on protecting Canada’s forests and its forestry industry from increasingly damaging scourges such as the longhorned beetle, Dutch elm disease, sudden oak death and the Asian gypsy moth.
“One of the challenges is that invasive species can arrive by various pathways including on wood products and live plants, through global transport pathways and by natural dispersal across borders,” says Dr. Richard Hamelin, Professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Science at the University of British Columbia in a statement. “The best way to fight them is through early detection via biosurveillance so they can be eliminated before they become established.”
Awarded through Genome Canada’s 2015 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition, the BioSurveillance of Alien Forest Enemies (BioSAFE) project aims to create tools for fast and accurate genetic testing so that inspection agents can formally identify shipment goods that contain invasive species.
“The faster the better,” said Hamelin. “When eggs sacs or (potential) pathogens are found on imported material such as nursery plants or ships arriving at port, there is threat, but delays cost money.”
Already well established in Ontario and Quebec, the gypsy moth larvae are known to feast on 500 varieties of trees and plants and are considered a major destructive pest of hardwood trees, along with causing severe damage to blueberry, hazelnut and other cash crops. The long-horned beetle is also a serious hardwood pest. First identified in Canada in 2003, the insect is thought to have arrived in packaging materials used in shipping from China.
Canadian forestry is a $33-billion a year industry – in British Columbia alone, forestry makes up 30 per cent of the province’s exports, with almost 60 per cent of the province classified as forest land. The BioSAFE team expects its work to generate at least $3 billion annually in economic impacts for Canada.
“This pioneering approach takes full advantage of the remarkable technological advances in genomics and data science to speed up and improve decision-making to inform mitigation and management of invasive species,” says Dr. Catalina Lopez-Correa, Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President, Sector Development at Genome BC. “The partnership with CFIA, NRCan and FPInnovations means that this research will move out of the laboratory to where it is most needed.”