Helping to answer these and other large-scale questions about life on Earth is the goal of BIOSCAN, a project awarded $24 million CAD in federal funding this month.
BIOSCAN is among seven initiatives nationwide – including only two science projects – to receive awards through the Transformation 2020 (T2020) competition run by the Canada Research Coordinating Committee.
Announced on January 12th by The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, this program supports large-scale, Canadian-led research projects that address a major challenge and promise real, lasting change.
The support comes from the New Frontiers in Research Fund, a joint initiative of all three major federal granting agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Prof. Paul Hebert (Photo: Centre for Biodiversity Genomics)
“This federal support further strengthens the University of Guelph’s leading role in understanding and protecting life on Earth,” said Dr. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research). “This funding will indeed be transformational, enabling U of G researchers and their collaborators worldwide to preserve biodiversity and improve human, animal, and ecosystem health around the planet.”
Meet some of the international researchers and members of the iBOL Science Committee involved in BIOSCAN.
Involving more than 70 team members at research institutions in Canada and abroad, co-principal investigators include integrative biology professor Dr. Mehrdad Hajibabaei, a metabarcoding expert with the CBG, and Dr. Graham Taylor, a machine learning and artificial intelligence specialist in the School of Engineering.
Calling the T2020 award “catalytic,” Hebert said it will stimulate funding from other agencies and partners for the project, intended to compile a DNA reference library for multicellular life with a focus on species discovery in developing nations.
Expanding the DNA barcode reference library, housed in the informatics platforms at the CBG, is one of BIOSCAN’s central goals. To add new “volumes” of species to the database, the centre’s DNA sequencing equipment and “big data” tools crunch through DNA from specimens provided by scientists from the 40 member countries in the International Barcode of Life consortium, also based at the University.
Developed by Hebert and his colleagues, DNA barcoding identifies species based on the sequence characterization of a short, telltale stretch of their genetic material.
Stemming global biodiversity loss is the overall goal of the project. By cataloguing what creatures live where, BIOSCAN is developing a baseline for monitoring ongoing changes to biodiversity and ecosystems. That’s critical information for accurately assessing and alleviating human impacts on other species through climate change, invasive species, wildlife trade, habitat disturbance, and resource use, said Hebert.
Without action to stem biodiversity losses, he added, “all evidence points to the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.”
Through BIOSCAN, researchers expect to influence regulatory policies and practices worldwide to mitigate these losses.
Among various biodiversity projects worldwide, CBG researchers are working with colleagues in Costa Rica to examine the benefits derived from the transition to organic farming of pineapple on both beneficial insects and the birds that consume them. In collaboration with researchers in Ghana, metabarcoding is being used to map food webs involving insects and their predators to help control malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Here in Canada, CBG researchers are working with McCain Foods to advance its efforts to develop farming practices that promote soil biodiversity while improving crop yield. They are also barcoding Arctic species to help monitor biodiversity in the North.
BIOSCAN aims to revolutionize our understanding of biodiversity and our capacity to manage it. Involving scientists, research organizations, and citizens, BIOSCAN will explore three major research themes: Species Discovery, Species Interactions, Species Dynamics.
However, the core mission of BIOSCAN lies not with protecting human lives but those of the millions of species that share our planet. Hebert said that “It’s the only way that humanity will achieve the UN’s goal of living in harmony with nature by mid-century.”
For more information on BIOSCAN, visit: bioscan.life
For more information on the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, visit: biodiversitygenomics.net
International Barcode of Life Consortium
The International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Consortium is a research alliance with a mission to develop and apply a globally accessible, DNA-based system for the discovery and identification of all multicellular life. Our vision is to illuminate biodiversity for the benefit of our living planet.