Cougars, cod and bass: Genomics lab digs into species research

One of the newest and most advanced labs in the province is well on its way to solving some of New Brunswick's biological mysteries.

New Brunswick's latest genomics lab is involved with a variety of research projects

The Canadian Rivers Institute Genomics Laboratory in Saint John, has been working on several research projects that could have large impacts on provincial industries. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

One of the province's most advanced laboratories is well on its way to solving some of New Brunswick's biological mysteries about species ranging from cod and bass to cougars. 

Within a year of opening, the Canadian Rivers Institute Genomics Laboratory at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, has started working on discovering the answer to provincial issues. 

"It's the first lab to have this compliment of equipment and people that is geared for the most cutting-edge genomics that's coming out right now," said Scott Pavey, the director of the genomics lab.

"It allows New Brunswick to really attract these great scientists."

The majority of its research focuses on fish, with ongoing projects surrounding several species, including cod and the possibility of population rebound. 

Scott Pavey, the head of the Canadian Rivers Institute Genomics Laboratory, said the facility is able to offer cutting-edge technology to some of the best scientists working in genetics and genomics. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Greg Puncher, a postdoctoral scholar working on several projects in the lab, said this is important research for Canada.

"We didn't do so well in the '90s and the Atlantic cod suffered a very disturbing collapse," Puncher said.

"But now is a great time for research and for fisheries management because it appears they are recovering in some areas." 

Gregory Puncher, a postdoctoral scholar at the laboratory, is working on researching the possibility of a cod rebound. (Shane Fowler/CBC)
By comparing the genome of these fish to other populations, Puncher is able to extrapolate the origin of the rebounding fish.  

"We are really focused on looking at where the cod are coming from, which populations are doing well and which populations are recovering," said Puncher. 

"We look for tiny little indicators in the genetics or the DNA of cod. That will give us insights into the relatedness of different groups of cod." 

Studying striped bass

Faith Penny, a PhD student, has been researching how different environments affect striped-bass. (Shane Fowler/CBC)
The striped bass is another species being examined in the new lab. 

Faith Penny, a PhD student and technician with the lab, is examining the "gene expression changes" in the fish and how that affects them.

"This can tell us a lot for the animal when it comes to recreation, but also industry as well," Penny said.

Penny has worked with Pavey for a year and jokes that while she's always trying to get away from the facility its advances keep her rooted in Saint John. 

"With the equipment, the technology and the expertise in this lab it allows us to look at the genome and process a lot of different samples," said Penny.

"That really sets us apart." 

Analyzing cougar samples

The laboratory has been processing several samples of hair and stool for potential cougar DNA. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)
Researchers are also working on examining the genetics of animals on land.

For more than a decade, hair and scat samples have been collected by those who believe to have encountered cougars within the province.

Those samples had to be sent to a lab in Montreal, as there weren't any facilities able to examine them in New Brunswick.

Since the opening of the UNB lab, those samples have been returned to the province and processed by Pavey's team. 

"Genomics is the main emphasis, but we also take other opportunities as they come up," said Pavey.

"This is something we've been delighted to get to work on." 

Keeping up with advanced labs

With its latest technology, the UNB laboratory is able to keep up with more advanced laboratories across the country.   

"We are set up to take advantage of some of the very recent technological advances in genomics, which produces exponentially large amounts of data," said Pavey.

"But it becomes quite difficult to manage the data. So about half of my equipment grant actually went towards an extremely large computer, which we use for bioinformatics." 

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.