Scientists map beaver genome as gift for Canada's 150th birthday
Published Friday, January 13, 2017 12:00PM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 13, 2017 1:12PM EST
Throughout Canada's history, the industrious, humble beaver has gone from near-extinction at the height of the fur trade to becoming the official symbol of our nation.
Now, Canadian researchers are hoping that the furry rodent can also become a science hero by helping them better understand human disorders like autism.
In a Canadian first, scientists at The Centre for Applied Genomics (TCAG) at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children have sequenced the entire genome of the Canadian beaver. More specifically, they mapped out all the genes of 10-year-old Ward, a beaver who lives at the Toronto Zoo.
The beaver DNA project is expected to help advance research into human disorders and diseases such as autism and cancer, by allowing scientists to better understand genome sequencing done from scratch.
"The beaver genome was something that was begging to be studied," TCAG director Steve Scherer told CTV News.
It was also the perfect gift to Canada as the country approaches its 150th anniversary, he said.
"Up until now, the beaver genome had not yet been completed. It's an important animal, not just in Canada's history, but also in the study of evolution and biology."
Scherer, known for his breakthrough research into genes linked to autism, explained that the beaver genome sequencing was done as a way to test new technologies and ideas developed at the TCAG to study human genomes.
TCAG sequences about 10,000 genomes each year, using a process known as "re-sequencing," or comparing the studied genome to existing sequences of other individuals.
This time, scientists used a much more complex approach called "de novo" sequencing, which meant they assembled Ward the beaver's genome from scratch.
"It's amazingly difficult, that's why it's not commonly done," Si Lok, the study co-author and lead of technology development at TCAG, told CTV News.
"Ward was the perfect example for us to try the new technology."
Scherer said that because of technological limitations in the past, TCAG scientists have been able to provide only about 20 per cent of families affected by autism with a genetic explanation.
Now, thanks to de novo sequencing of Ward's genome, the same process can be applied to human DNA and lessons learned from the beaver project can be applied to ongoing autism research, as well as genetic studies of cancer and other disorders, Scherer said.
"Many, many of the genes that are found in human brain development are found in beaver genome," Scherer said. "And that's not surprising because the beaver is actually the only other organism other than humans that modifies its environment to benefit itself, its survival -- so it must be really smart."
In addition to the Toronto Zoo, the scientists also partnered with the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto. SickKids also produced a YouTube video explaining how the beaver genome sequencing was done.
"It's very much a Canadian initiative and we're bringing together these big giants from Canadian institutions," said Kevin Kerr, a Toronto Zoo curator who helped arrange the study of Ward's DNA.
"We think this is a huge Canadian success story," Scherer said.
With files from CTV's medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip