GENOMICS: an increasingly important part of the environmental toolkit

Genomics is proving to be a valuable tool for environmental monitoring and remediation. A recently published article in Canadian Reclamation magazine highlights some genomics applications in a range of reclamation challenges.

Note: Canadian Reclamation magazine is a subscription-only publication and has graciously given Genome Atlantic permission to publish this story on our website.

Download The Full Article Here



Bioenterprise Corporation Signs A Memorandum Of Understanding With Genome Atlantic

Halifax, NS (September 27, 2017) – Bioenterprise Corporation, a national, non-profit agri-technology business accelerator, is pleased to announce the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Genome Atlantic, a non-profit corporation that helps Atlantic Canada reap the economic and social benefits of genomics. The MOU signals the commitment to enhance the contribution that each organization can make to the agriculture communities, including the areas of industrial and commercial technologies.

Bioenterprise Maritimes, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island has established the agreement with Genome Atlantic to foster and accelerate the growth of innovative technologies and drive economic returns throughout the Atlantic region. The collaboration will provide companies with greater access to strategic networks as well as Bioenterprise’s quality and range of commercialization services.

Bioenterprise established offices in the Maritime provinces in 2015, and has since formed strategic relationships with Innovacorp, PEI ADAPT Council, BioNB, Perennia, the Centre for Ocean Ventures & Entrepreneurship, University of Dalhousie’s Faculty of Agriculture, the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia, Innovation PEI, Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance and Natural Products Canada.  Additionally, Bioenterprise Maritimes has existing MOU’s with Canada’s Smartest Kitchen, Food Island Partnership and Bio|Food|Tech.

Headquartered in Guelph, Ontario, Bioenterprise also has office locations in Toronto, Ontario; Vancouver and Mission, British Columbia, and the aforementioned Maritime locations.  Bioenterprise Corporation’s national expansion is supported by the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP), delivered by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP).


“We are committed to advancing innovative agribusinesses and look forward to working with Genome Atlantic in various collaborative capacities.  The partnership provides access to their genomic scientific and technical expertise, and enhances our capabilities to service the needs of companies. We are looking forward to the joint efforts between Bioenterprise and Genome Atlantic in the development of economic and commercial growth in the Maritimes.”

–    Dave Smardon, President & CEO, Bioenterprise Corporation

“Genomics is a key driver of sustainability, productivity and clean technology in agriculture and aquaculture. This formal partnership between Genome Atlantic and Bioenterprise will leverage the expertise and networks both partners bring to the table, streamlining the process by which Atlantic Canadian business and academic researchers can tap into these resources.”

–    Steve Armstrong, President & CEO, Genome Atlantic

About Bioenterprise Corporation

Bioenterprise Corporation is a national, non-profit business accelerator offering commercialization services to support the creation, growth and expansion of businesses in the agricultural technology sector.  Since 2003, Bioenterprise has focused exclusively on agri-technology, providing companies with scientific and technical expertise, industry knowledge, business services and global connections.  Bioenterprise is funded through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative, and the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP) delivered by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP).
www.bioenterprise.caAbout Genome Atlantic

About Genome Atlantic

Genome Atlantic is a not-for-profit corporation that helps Atlantic Canada reap the economic and social benefits of genomics and other ‘omics technologies.  With a mission to ‘create good things from life’, Genome Atlantic is the region’s only organization that uses DNA-related solutions to help businesses grow. Working with a broad range of partners, and as part of a national network of genome centres, Genome Atlantic has enabled more than $90 million in genomics-driven R&D solutions in Atlantic Canada’s agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries, energy, the environment, forestry, human health, and mining sectors.

Genome Atlantic is a not-for-profit corporation that helps Atlantic Canada reap the economic and social benefits of genomics and other ‘omics technologies.  With a mission to ‘create good things from life’, Genome Atlantic is the region’s only organization that uses DNA-related solutions to help businesses grow. Working with a broad range of partners, and as part of a national network of genome centres, Genome Atlantic has enabled more than $90 million in genomics-driven R&D solutions in Atlantic Canada’s agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries, energy, the environment, forestry, human health, and mining sectors.


Jennifer Kalanda, Marketing Manager
Bioenterprise Corporation
519.821.2960 ext 248

Charmaine Gaudet, Director of External Relations
Genome Atlantic
902.421.5683; 902.488.7837

2016 – 2017 Annual Report

In 2014, Genome Atlantic embarked on an ambitious three-year business plan to meet our region’s growing demand for genomics solutions. We are pleased to share with you our 2016-2017 Annual Report highlighting the final year of this plan and the culmination of a success story that has contributed to a thriving regional biosciences sector.

Genomics plays a key role in enabling innovation in seven sectors and Genome Atlantic is the only organization in Atlantic Canada that is solely focused on helping businesses access DNA-related solutions to thrive and grow.

Simply put, we create good things from life, whether it’s making fish farming environmentally friendly or using marine micro-organisms to de-risk oil and gas exploration. Since our inception in 2000, we have helped to enable more than $90 million in new R&D and over 1,500 person years of employment. The increasing investment from the private sector – currently more than 20% of our portfolio –- speaks to the growing uptake of genomics-based solutions by Atlantic Canadian businesses.

Genome Atlantic is grateful for the generous assistance of the Government of Canada through Genome Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, and the National Research Council of Canada (Industrial Research Assistance Program) as well as the Province of Newfoundland in supporting our work and helping us contribute to Atlantic Canada’s health and prosperity.

We hope that in reading this Annual Report, you will be as excited as we are about the power and promise of genomics.


Judy Shaw
Chair, Board of Directors

Steve Armstrong, PhD
President & CEO

Five Questions for the man behind Canada’s Genetic Non-discrimination Act

Well-known Halifax lawyer, Jim Cowan, retired from the Senate this year with a big feather in his cap: hard-won passage of the Genetic Non-discrimination Act.

In the world of Canadian genetics it is landmark legislation, and it took Cowan, a former Liberal leader of the Senate, four years and three dogged attempts to achieve it.

The American Society of Human Genetics took note, presenting Cowan and his battle-hardened ally, the Canadian Coalition of Genetic Fairness, with the society’s second annual advocacy award last year.

Royal assent was given to the legislation in May and it is now in effect.

The Genetic Non-discrimination Act makes it illegal for employers, insurance companies or anyone else to require an employee, client or customer, real or potential, to undergo genetic testing or divulge the results.

  • Individuals cannot be penalized for refusing genetic testing.
  • Collecting, disclosing or using genetic test results now require written permission from the individuals tested, although attending physicians, health care practitioners, and pharmacists are exempt, as are researchers.
  • Serious infractions are subject to fines not exceeding $1 million and/or prison terms no longer than five years, while lesser violations can generate fines as much as $300,000 and/or prison terms up to 12 months.
  • While all employees are protected under by the Act, amendments to the Canada Labour Code ensure a complaints procedure regarding the new protections is available to employees in federally regulated industries such as telecommunications, baking and transportation, while changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act make discrimination on the basis of genetic characteristics illegal in employment, housing and the provision of goods and services.

The new legal protection means Canadians can take advantage of genetic tests, now exploding in number, and benefit from proactive treatment without risking their jobs or adversely impacting their insurance or access to other goods and services.

It is already being credited with an anecdotal uptick in parental inquiries about genetic testing at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. The legislation brings Canada into line with other G7 nations.

For all that, the legislation remains on shaky ground, because the government has signaled plans to refer the newly minted act to the Supreme Court of Canada to test its constitutionality.

Health insurance, regulation of contracts and provision of goods and services usually fall under provincial jurisdiction, and the federal justice minister maintains the legislation exceeds its authority by straying onto this provincial turf. Manitoba, British Columbia and Quebec have responded to the minister’s call to provinces and territories to register objections and reportedly will seek leave to intervene.

Strongest opposition to the legislation has come from the insurance industry, headed by the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association. The industry prefers self-regulation.

To mark Cowan’s keynote address to the September Genomics and Health Seminar, which Genome Atlantic helps sponsor, we sent Cowan five questions about his recent legislative achievement in the Red Chamber.

Genome Atlantic: What made you persevere so long and so hard to get this law passed? Was there something personal behind your dedicated sponsorship of the bill?

The Hon. James Cowan Q.C.: The issue was first raised with me in 2012 by my Senior Policy Advisor, Barbara Kagedan, who had a close friend who tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene. Barbara found that unlike most other countries with which we like to compare ourselves, there was no protection in Canada against the use/misuse of one’s genetic information. This resonated with me because of my legal background and long-standing interest in scientific and medical research. Shortly afterwards, I was contacted by the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness, and we resolved to take on the issue.

Genome Atlantic: Why do you think the federal government is so keen to get a reference from the Supreme Court of Canada on your legislation, when it rejected the idea for its legislation on medically assisted suicide?

James Cowan Q.C.: The Minister of Justice has been advised by her officials that the act intrudes into provincial jurisdiction and accordingly she announced that she would refer the issue of its constitutionality to the Supreme Court of Canada. To date she has not done so, but the Government of Quebec has announced that it will refer the issue to the Quebec Court of Appeal.

As you note the same Minister refused to refer the issue of the constitutionality of her MAID [Medical Assistance in Dying] legislation to the SCC despite the suggestion by me, and a number of other Senators that she do so. She provided no reason other than a referral as not necessary.

Genome Atlantic: Should Canadians be worried by insurance industry claims that the new legislation could eventually drive up term life insurance premiums by as much as 30 percent for men and 50 percent for women? Or by speculation that critical care insurance for some conditions might eventually become unavailable because people predisposed to particular genetic disorders have loaded up on coverage and distorted the market?

James Cowan Q.C.: In my view the claims /concerns expressed by the insurance industry are overblown. The drastic effects predicted by the industry have not occurred in any other country where similar legislative regimes have been put in place. The office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has conducted two separate studies concluding that this legislation would have minimal impact upon the life and health insurance markets in Canada.

Genome Atlantic: As a lawyer who has consulted constitutional experts on this issue, do you think the federal government has enough support and convincing arguments to overturn the legislation on constitutional grounds when it refers the legislation to the Supreme Court of Canada? If the federal government succeeds, do you anticipate seeing provincial legislatures taking up the cause?

James Cowan Q.C.: I am not a constitutional expert by any means but I have consulted with leading constitutional scholars who confirm–and have testified–that the provisions of the new Genetic Non-Discrimination Act are a valid exercise of the federal criminal law power. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence presented to the Senate and House committees supported that position. I accept their legal opinion and believe the legislation will withstand any constitutional challenge. On four separate occasions I, and the Senate and House committees, solicited the opinions of the provinces and territories. Not one expressed any concern. In fairness I would note the Minister of Justice and /or the life insurance industry did manage (at the 11th hour) to persuade three provinces to express concerns on jurisdictional grounds and as noted above in my answer to Question #2, the Quebec government has announced that it will refer the issue to the Quebec Court of Appeal.

I am unaware of any provincial or territorial government planning to introduce legislation on this issue. In my view there is broad support for a single pan-Canadian regime, rather than a patchwork of subnational ones.

Genome Atlantic: Presupposing your legislation withstands the federal government’s planned reference to the Supreme Court of Canada, where do you see the next genetics-related legal battleground shaping up this country?

James Cowan Q.C.: Genetics is seen by many to be the key to the future of precision or personalized medicine. The number of genetic tests has exploded – from 2000 when I first began working on this issue five years ago, to almost 53,000 today, and these relate to less than 5,200 of the 20,000-25,000 genes in the human genome. Gene editing (CRISPR) and gene therapy are realities not the stuff of science fiction. These new realities raise a whole host of legal, ethical and moral issues which demand the attention of politicians, scientists, ethicists and an engaged public.

The Promise of Precision Health: Sienna’s Story

Orphan (rare) disease are a group of genetic diseases that collectively affect 1 in 12 Canadians. Now, gene discovery is offering new hope for new therapies. A new video by Genome Canada tells the story of Sienna, a rare disease patient in Kingston, Ontario whose condition – a rare form of epilepsy – is better managed thanks to research funded by Genome Canada and partners. The story illustrates the power and promise of precision health, fueled by Canadian genomics research.

From porcupine scat to industrial bioremediation: Dalhousie U’s synthetic biology buffs prepare for global competition

Does porcupine scat contain the secret to transform the pulp and paper industry’s cellulose waste into a profitable biofuel on a commercial scale?

“It’s definitely possible,” says Mackenzie Thornbury, a synthetic biology buff and microbiology and immunology student at Dalhousie University.

In preparation for the 2017 Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM), Nov. 9-13 in Boston, Massachusetts, Thornbury and her 23 Dalhousie teammates are probing one of the newest and hottest scientific fields to show how synthesized enzymes from the porcupine gut could be harnessed for bioremediation. Long-term, commercial feasibility is in their sights.

As iGEM competitors, she explains,“ We’re using synthetic biology to make microorganisms do useful work for us.” In essence that is what the term, genetically engineered machine, means.

Going for gold

Dr. Craig McCormick, the team’s faculty advisor, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, confidently declares, “we’re going for gold this year. Even though the Dalhousie team is only in its third year,” he says, “it has already competed at the Giant Jamboree in Boston twice, earning a bronze medal last year. Our students stood shoulder to shoulder with top Ivy League teams and told the story of their unique research.”

The competition is the world’s premier synthetic biology event for students. Synthetic biology, also known as synbio, is so new, formal training is hard to find. No university in Atlantic Canada offers it, but the field is surging because of its practical problem-solving potential.

Synthetic biology focuses on re-designing biological systems, including microbial components and genetic circuitry, to do useful work. Current synbio advances include new ‘green chemistry’ technology to produce useful compounds, and novel data-encryption platforms using microbial DNA. The same synbio techniques can be applied to long-term goals including the development of synthetic tissues and organs.

Genome Atlantic a sponsor

According to recent reports, McCormick says synthetic biology is on track to become a $26 billion global industry by 2025. That projected economic impact is one reason Genome Atlantic is a sponsor this year, says Dr. Kristin Tweel, the not-for-profit corporation’s business development officer. Besides financial aid, Genome Atlantic is introducing the team to some relevant industry contacts and scientific experts.

“Synthetic biology is an emerging area of genomics that holds a lot of promise for greener, more sustainable products,” says Tweel. “Genome Atlantic is proud to sponsor the Dalhousie iGEM team because these students will be tomorrow’s scientists who are leading innovation in this new field. Also, their project is entrepreneurial in nature, in an area that’s relevant to the forestry and pulp and paper industries which are important sectors for Atlantic Canada.”

For the second year running, Dalhousie entrants are probing the porcupine microbiome for cellulose-degrading enzymes. As a well-known fancier of tree bark, a substance rich in cellulose and difficult to digest, the porcupine is proving a savvy choice for attention.

In the papermaking process, the industry relies on chemicals, water or fire to separate unwanted cellulose from wood fibre. The Dalhousie team is searching the porcupine gut for a more environmentally friendly way to do the separating and turn the cellulose-laden waste into a sustainable source of energy.

Deeper data dive

Determined not to be outdone by last year’s iGEM crew, Thornbury says the 2017 team is starting with a deeper data dive.

Metagenomic sequencing has been completed using the same porcupine fecal samples subjected to standard 16S rRNA sequencing last year to detect the microbial diversity in the mammal’s gut. This latest action means the entire porcupine microbiome – all the DNA in the scat – has now been sequenced.

The enriched data makes it possible to identify the enzymes encoded in the bacterial sequences. This year the team is looking for two enzymes that can break down the main cellulose molecule and seven enzymes to degrade complex forms such as hemicellulose, found in tree bark.

As enzyme candidates are pinpointed, the plan is to chemically synthesize them at Integrated DNA Technologies Inc., another iGEM Dalhousie team sponsor, and then test the synthesized enzymes in E. coli for their cellulose degrading ability. In combination with enzymes, E. coli can transform cellulose and hemicellulose into glucose.

From there, it is a short step with a yeast silo reactor to creating a biofuel. “Our idea is to put yeast into the mixture to take the glucose and create ethanol,” says Thornbury. The same principle is used in wine- and beer-making when yeast converts the sugar in grapes and malted barley into alcohol.

Commercial potential

In theory, there is plenty of commercial potential here. Thornbury points to BioVectra in Charlottetown, a company that already does microfermentation for the pharmaceutical industry and notes that a bioreactor for large-scale ethanol production is not a new concept. However, at this stage, she concedes,“ it would be a big jump from where we are now.”

Nevertheless, McCormick says, “I’d like to see the team engage with the Nova Scotia business community to explore the potential of synthetic biology to create new solutions for industry.” He points out that in 2015, the Dalhousie iGEM team cloned genes that make blueberries blue – and healthy.

This year’s Dalhousie iGEM contingent is more than triple the size of last year’s group. Disciplines as varied as computer science, management and engineering as well as the basic sciences are represented and Microbiology maintains a robust presence. Five grad students are acting as team mentors and students have run their own skill development workshops on gene cloning and bioinformatics.

What is the attraction? McCormick describes it as “ a unique educational experience. It’s student-led with hands-on training in an emerging area of science, the opportunity to communicate findings to an international conference and the opportunity to publish.”

The first team-produced scientific manuscript from Dalhousie’s iGEM experience, based on work with the porcupine gut, is due out this year in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science.