PRecision Omics for AQUAtic wildlife

Salish Sea
Photo: Caden Churchill

Aquatic wildlife acts as sentinels for environmental and human health. They are apt indicators of pollutant and climate change effects yet the current methods do not effectively capture the scope of deleterious effects that impact the individual and populations. Particularly vulnerable are those life stages where considerable growth, formation, and remodeling of body plans occur such as in embryonic/fetal development, metamorphosis, infancy, and childhood. Exposure at any of these critical stages could result in permanent dysfunction, increased susceptibility to cancer, behavioural and/or reproductive problems. Sometimes these effects can span multiple generations. It is critical to have the appropriate tools to identify when a deleterious outcome is likely to happen to effectively mitigate problems. We can do this by looking at genes that are expressed and the products that they make.

The Helbing lab is developing and using a wide range of molecular approaches on amphibians, fish, marine mammals, bivalves, and other wildlife to better define effects of exposure to substances including pharmaceuticals, personal care products, oil spills, and chemical mixtures from municipal wastewater. To assess animal health, we are enabling the application of the latest ‘omics technologies to wildlife species including RNA-Seq, quantitative real time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), metabolomics and proteomics. We have even sequenced and assembled the first “true frog” genome! One research goal is to develop accessible non-lethal health tests for wildlife. To assess population health, we are applying our molecular expertise to develop robust tools for biologists to track species distribution using environmental DNA. These eDNA tools can be made to test for endangered or invasive species depending upon the need, and the presence of their DNA can be tested from a scoop of water!

Have a look at our ongoing projects!