Sequence #6: Tapping our ocean potential, recruiting talent, and a new genetics institute

In October, scientists, environmental and policy experts, and graduate students converged in St. John’s NL for the inaugural Ocean Frontier 2018: North Atlantic Opportunities conference, organized by the Ocean Frontier Institute to explore the enormous potential of the North Atlantic.  Genome Atlantic was pleased to attend and proud to be a partner.   

Genomics is a critical technology for tapping our ocean potential and is a key pillar of the Ocean Supercluster.  Genomics is transforming ocean industries like aquaculture, offshore exploration and tidal energy, enhancing environmental monitoring and providing clean tech solutions for addressing the effects of climate change.  A good example of the latter is a Genome Atlantic-supported research project led by Memorial University’s Dr. Kurt Gamperl, who presented his work at the conference.

Just a few degrees of ocean temperature warming can increase the incidence of disease and mortalities in farmed salmon – and Gamperl and his colleagues at the University of Prince Edward Island, University of Waterloo, Guelph University, Huntsman Marine Science Centre, Somru BioScience and the Centre for Aquaculture Technologies Canada are using genomics and genetic sequencing to help the east coast aquaculture industry adapt its production to rising sea temperatures and breed more disease-resistant fish.  Here’s an update on the project and the team’s latest findings.

From oceans to human health, Genome Atlantic attended the recent launch of the CIHR Institute of Genetics at Dalhousie University’s medical school.  The Tupper Foyer was packed to the gills in celebration of Atlantic Canada’s first-ever CIHR Institute and to offer congratulations to Dalhousie’s own Dr. Christopher McMaster who was appointed Institute Director over the summer. Far from basking in the glory, McMaster was tasked the role of emceeing the event (for which he was rewarded with a giant, iced CIHR cookie). Cookies aside, we asked McMaster about his plans for the Institute and how genomics is revolutionizing medicine

Genomics and other ‘omics technologies are creating other opportunities for Atlantic Canada, including recruiting and retaining top talent. Dr. Carl Peters is a perfect example. A native of Breman, Germany, Peters is a Postdoc who specializes in lipidomics, the analysis of lipid species found in organisms. He was recruited in 2017 by Dr. Todd Ventura’s organic geochemistry lab team at Saint Mary’s University as a Mitacs-funded intern to work on a national microbial genomics project to de-risk oil and gas exploration in Nova Scotia’s offshore.  Peters talks about his work, why it’s important, and how he hopes his current project will lead to a longer-term career in Halifax in our Young Scientist Profile.   

Université de Moncton partners with the Government of Canada, Genome Atlantic, Genome Canada, New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, and Organigram to advance cannabis research and increase productivity

Research to support growth of the cannabis industry in Atlantic Canada through the application and adaptation of novel biotechnologies

L to R: Dr. Martin Filion, Université de Moncton; Jeff Purcell, Organigram; Dr. David Joly, Université de Moncton

MONCTON, NEW BRUNSWICK – (November 13, 2018):  The Université de Moncton, in partnership with the Government of Canada, Genome Atlantic, Genome Canada, New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF) and Organigram Holdings Inc. (TSX VENTURE:OGI) (OTCQB:OGRMF), today announced the creation of an institutional research project focused on cannabis at the Université de Moncton.

Supplying cannabis and cannabis products to a legalized adult use recreational market represents a major economic opportunity in New Brunswick and across the country. Indeed, the retail market value for recreational cannabis in Canada is expected to reach $8.7 billion annually. However, current production capacity will not meet the anticipated demand.

To date, cannabis has not benefitted from the application of biotechnologies (particularly genomics) that have led to massive increases in yields and the sustainability of other agricultural production systems. The innovative, research-driven approach supported by this partnership will explore how these novel approaches can help improve the productivity and quality of cannabis products.

Genome Atlantic was the catalyst for the project, to which the project partners will contribute more than $1.1 million over three years. The research will be led by Dr. David Joly and Dr. Martin Filion, both professors from the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Université de Moncton. Organigram will provide working space, raw material and expert resources in collaboration with the Université de Moncton research team. Genome Atlantic’s contribution is made through Genome Canada’s new Regional Priorities Partnership Program (RP3), which allocates funding for projects that reflect regional priorities.

Specifically, the research will seek to:

  • Improve the quality of the product by identifying specific traits through genetic mapping, which will result in healthier, more resistant plants and improved growing techniques
  • Improve productivity and lower costs by introducing beneficial microbial inoculants and developing strains with improved traits
  • Conduct genetic research to identify specific markers which will allow specific strains to be protected if necessary

The expected results from this project are closely aligned with New Brunswick’s Economic Growth Plan and will contribute to an economically-viable cannabis industry by increasing production and potential revenue.

This project also builds on commitments made by the Government of Canada and the four Atlantic provinces to drive economic growth in the region through the Atlantic Growth Strategy. This Strategy supports strategic investments in initiatives that build on Atlantic Canada’s competitive advantages, such as its growing innovation ecosystem and skilled workforce, and position the region to capitalize on emerging opportunities.

Other benefits include training of highly qualified personnel required to support the growth of this industry; developing proprietary technologies that can be marketed to other jurisdictions; and enhancing New Brunswick’s and Atlantic Canada’s role as a world leader in cannabis science.

The project partners each echoed their support for the goals of the project and the value of the unprecedented collaboration:

  • “Together with its partners, the Government of Canada makes transformative investments to build smart, strong and sustainable communities that meet today’s unique challenges and prepare us all for a prosperous future. I am pleased that our government, through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency’s Business Development Program, is investing $353,000 in this project that will enhance Atlantic Canada’s role as a cannabis research and development leader and cannabis genomics centre of expertise.” – The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency
  • “Our partnership with Organigram combines some of the most promising technologies with a unique access to state-of-the-art cultivation facilities and some of the most popular strains of cannabis. Such collaboration is vital to ensure that discoveries made in our lab can lead to innovations that will prevent losses, promote productivity and allow the development of novel markets.” – David L. Joly, Assistant Professor, Université de Moncton
  • “The cannabis sector is an area of strategic importance for New Brunswick and genomics is critical to many high-value components of the cannabis value chain.  Building local research capacity in cannabis genomics will give New Brunswick companies a competitive advantage in this rapidly evolving marketplace.” – Andy Stone, Director of Business Development, Genome Atlantic
  • “Cannabis holds tremendous potential for those parts of Canada and the world ready to take advantage of it. The NBIF is pleased to support a project that increases New Brunswick’s competitive advantage in this burgeoning sector by bringing together experts in industry and academia to use genomics in new ways that improve the quality of cannabis products.” – Dr. Laura Richard, Director of Research, New Brunswick Innovation Foundation.
  • “We have been working with the Université de Moncton almost since our inception and look forward to strengthening the collaboration through this project. It is a tremendous example of local, provincial and federal support for the cannabis industry and solidifies Moncton as a world leader in cannabis genetic research.  The Organigram team is excited to continue to work with Dr. Joly and Dr. Filion and to get started on this very important project.” – Greg Engel, CEO, Organigram

About Université de Moncton

The Université de Moncton is Canada’s largest French-language university outside Quebec. Founded in 1963, it is an institution with three constituents (campuses) located in Edmundston, Moncton and Shippagan, in New Brunswick. It offers a range of programs in the three study cycles to meet the training needs of the popu­lation it serves. It provides its services to the vast Francophone diaspora throughout the country, thus becoming the ideal symbol of the linguistic and cultural vitality of Francophones living outside Quebec.

About Genome Atlantic

Genome Atlantic is a not-for-profit corporation with a mission to help Atlantic Canada reap the economic and social benefits of genomics and other ‘omics technologies. Since its inception in 2000, the corporation has worked with a range of private and public-sector partners to enable more than $100 million in new genomics R&D.

About Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency works to create opportunities for economic growth in Atlantic Canada by helping small and medium-sized businesses become more innovative, productive and competitive, by working with diverse communities to develop and diversify local economies, and by championing the strengths of Atlantic Canada.

About New Brunswick Innovation Foundation

Since its launch 15 years ago, the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, an independent, non-profit corporation, has invested over $100 million in New Brunswick startups and researchers and leveraged $457 million more from other private and public sources. Those strategic investments have helped launch over 100 companies and funded nearly 500 applied research projects. Profits from NBIF’s investments go back into the foundation for reinvestment in other startups and research initiatives that drive innovation, attract investment and create jobs in New Brunswick. Find out more at

About Organigram 

Organigram Holdings Inc. is a TSX Venture Exchange listed company whose wholly owned subsidiary, Organigram Inc., is a licensed producer of cannabis and cannabis-derived products in Canada.

Organigram is focused on producing the highest-quality, indoor-grown cannabis for patients and adult recreational consumers in Canada, as well as developing international business partnerships to extend the company’s global footprint. In anticipation of the legal adult use recreational cannabis in Canada, Organigram has developed a portfolio of brands including The Edison Cannabis Company, Ankr Organics Trailer Park Buds and Trailblazer. Organigram’s primary facility is located in Moncton, New Brunswick and the Company is regulated by the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (“ACMPR”).

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Young Scientist Profile: Dr. Carl Peters, Postdoctoral Fellow “We want to map go and no go areas for offshore drilling.”

Dr. Carl Peters, Saint Mary’s University. Photo Credit: Betsy Chambers

Field: Marine Biogeochemistry, specializing in lipidomics, the analysis of lipid species found in organisms.

A native of Bremen, Germany, Dr. Carl Peters has been in Halifax since 2017. He arrived by way of Sydney, Australia, after doing a PhD in organic geochemistry at Macquarie University and research at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. His five-year stay Down Under followed studies in geochemistry and marine geoscience at the University of Bremen where he obtained his BSc and MSc, and worked in one of the world’s pre-eminent organic chemistry labs in environmental lipidomics at the Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences.

Peters is part of Dr. G. Todd Ventura’s organic geochemistry lab team, in the Department of Geology, Saint Mary’s University. Ventura, a Tier II Canada Research Chair, recruited Peters as a Mitacs-funded intern for his lipidomic expertise in a national microbial genomics project aimed at helping the province’s off-shore oil and gas industry reduce its exploration costs and improve its discovery rate.

Current Project: a $4.9 million, three-year study, Microbial Genomics for De-risking Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration in Nova Scotia. It mixes genomics technologies and several geoscience disciplines to provide a more accurate picture of Nova Scotia’s offshore petroleum resources. The project, funded under Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP), is a national collaboration that includes Genome Atlantic, Genome Alberta, the Offshore Energy Research Association of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines, the Geological Survey of Canada, the University of Calgary, Saint Mary’s University and Mitacs.

The Challenge: For Peters it is analyzing the species of lipids found in lipid extracts made from marine sediment samples taken off the Nova Scotia coast. The samples are collected around seeps where petroleum naturally bubbles through the ocean floor, and he uses liquid chromatography, a method of separating lipids in the extracts, to do the analysis. Specifically, he hunts for intact polar lipids from bacteria associated with oil and gas deposits.

The Objective:  To develop new screening techniques, including profiles of the lipid clusters in marine sediment, that could help confirm the presence of offshore oil and gas reserves. Put another way, the project aims to develop an array of genomics-based tools to identify the aerobic, anaerobic and thermophilic bacteria that thrive on hydrocarbons and indicate nearby undersea stores of oil and gas. The achievement could shave millions of dollars from oil and gas exploration costs and bring more certainty to the risky business of exploratory well drilling in marine environments.

The Project’s Importance: Peters explains reliable tools to map “go and no-go areas,” for offshore drilling could help revive oil and gas exploration off Nova Scotia’s east coast. New offshore commercial reserves would mean new royalty and tax revenue for the government as well as significant new employment and investment. While Nova Scotia is the focus, offshore drilling in other jurisdictions with similar marine environments could also benefit.

The Exciting Part: “The integrative aspects” says Peters. “We’re going to put a huge dataset together that consists of genomics, proteomics and lipidomics.” The plan is for Ventura, who manages the overall lipidomics and integration components, to fold Peters’ lipidomics data into the results from the University of Calgary’s genomic and proteomic (protein) analyses of the marine sediment samples. “That’s really exciting because that has never been done before in this detail and with this kind of effort.” He is eager to see how the data from the different sources dovetail and what the comparisons will reveal. Only then will they know how close they have come to their objective.

Project’s Significance for Your Career Path: Like most postdocs, Peters doesn’t know whether he will ultimately land in academe or the private sector, so he has to keep his skill set sharp and versatile. In this project, he said, “I’ve learned a lot that’s helpful. The networking is really fantastic.” It provided good counterpoint to the solo endeavor of his PhD.  “I have never worked in such a big project and one that was so collaborative and multi-disciplinary.” He now has contacts from the University of Calgary to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and from the Offshore Energy Research Organization of Nova Scotia to the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines. In the near term he hopes the experience leads to a projected follow up investigation he helped design that would keep him in Halifax for another three years, this time as a research associate. Peters would like to extend his stay in the city; his partner, a data scientist who holds a PhD in geology, has settled in at Dalhousie University as a senior data manager, and a few months ago they welcomed their first child.

DNAbling the Healthcare Revolution

Dr. Christopher McMaster, Dalhousie University. Photo Credit: Danny Abriel

Dr. Christopher McMaster, Canada’s newest scientific director of the Institute for Genetics, is excited about the potential of genomics to help people stay healthier longer. “I think over the next decade genomics and other ‘omics fields will revolutionize how medicine is practiced,” he said.  

In 2000, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) established the Institute for Genetics – along with 12 other institutes – to support research discovery and its translation into improving health and strengthening our health care system.  At the same time, scientists were racing to complete the mapping of the human genome.

By 2003 the first human genome was sequenced. It cost $1 billion and took 13 years to complete. Now a human genome can be sequenced in a few days for less than a thousand dollars.  McMaster uses the analogy of purchasing a Ferrari to reference how incredible technology advances have rapidly reduced the cost of DNA sequencing. “It’s the equivalent of purchasing a Ferrari for $394,000 in 2003 and selling that same Ferrari to me today for 40 cents,” he said. 

More Analysis Needed

Unfortunately, the ability to rapidly acquire genetic data has significantly outpaced our capacity to interpret and use it. In his role as scientific director, McMaster explains, “We will need to increase our capacity to analyze genomic data if we are to determine what keeps us healthy and what makes us sick.”

But analyzing genomic data is not a simple task. Scientists searching for genetic mutations tend to look in protein-coding DNA, which comprises the exons of known genes, but that only makes up two per cent of the human genome. More recently, researchers have uncovered ‘dark DNA’ in the remaining 98 per cent of the human genome where the function of the DNA sequence is not clear and interpreting its effect is a challenge. “We don’t understand what every gene does or how it’s regulated,” said McMaster. “There’s a lot more basic science that needs to happen if we’re going to make the most of the millions of genomes being sequenced.”

Opening Doors Internationally

McMaster explains that in order to improve our capacity to decipher the meaning of genetic variants, especially those that cause rare inherited diseases, large amounts of data must be collected and shared by clinicians and researchers. The more genomes sequenced and aggregated in databases, the better we will get at predicting a person’s health and potential for disease. “It means clinicians can be prognostic and help patients stay healthy, whether it’s making sure they change behaviors, change diets, or get on medications prior to symptoms kicking in,” he said.

This is where the CIHR Institute of Genetics plays a vital role. McMaster is planning on strengthening Canada’s genetic community by furthering the Institute’s collaborations with Europe, United States, China, Japan, Australia and the world. “We are looking to leverage our partnerships so genomics data can be integrated, harmonized, and accessed across international boundaries for the betterment of health, worldwide,” he said.

Addressing Patient Privacy

While pooling genomic data will be better for patients in the long run, sharing data is not how medicine is traditionally practiced. “Protecting patient privacy, by addressing policy and legal challenges, is a priority as we begin to access, analyze, and manage more data,” he said.

Model for Success

The ease with which the human genome can be sequenced and the potential for genomics to become a routine part of medicine, makes it fitting to have the CIHR Institute of Genetics housed in the Sir Charles Tupper Medical Building of Dalhousie University’s medical school. “Dalhousie University has provided us with institutional support and first-class space,” said McMaster. “Plus being on the ground floor makes us accessible so researchers, clinicians and scientists working in genetics can drop by anytime to find out what’s happening and ask for advice. It’s an ideal model for success.” 

This is the first CIHR Institute to be located in Atlantic Canada and McMaster and his team look forward to having national and international leaders in genomics come to Halifax.  Not only will these leaders meet with Institute staff but it presents an opportunity to showcase the unparalleled success Atlantic Canadian researchers have had, particularly in the areas of inherited disease and the microbiome, from discovering genes linked to orphan diseases to developing new therapies. “There’s an opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from the expertise of these leaders in genomics,” he said.

McMaster’s first order of business is to set the strategic direction for the Institute of Genetics. “This is the fastest moving medical field out there, so as we plan for the future, it’s important to get our priorities right because the impact on the healthcare system will be massive,” he said. The newly appointed scientific director is already working with an institute advisory board and consulting with patients, doctors, and scientists about what directions are most important for the Institute to pursue and discussing ways to translate research evidence into policy and practice to improve the health of Canadians and people around the world.