Wilkinson found Australia very interested in DNA barcoding

Perth-Well­ington MPP and Minister of Research and Innovation John Wilkinson said last week that Australia is very interested in the University of Guelph’s DNA bar coding projects, and is willing to put up cash, too.
Wilkinson was in Arthur on March 14 for the groundbreaking of a new library there, but he is still ex­cited about the prospects from his February trip down under to spread the word about the University of Guelph’s DNA gen­etic program, called the Bar Code of Life.
That work is being led by University of Guelph’s inte­gra­t­ive biology professor Paul Hebert, who accompanied Wil­k­in­son on the trip, and post-doctoral researcher Mehrdad Hajibabaei.
Wilkinson said Australia is particularly interested in the work because, as an island, it is very picky and defensive when it comes to invasive species.
That county learned its lessons about introducing new species well over two centuries ago, with the rabbit. It was introduced in the 1770s, and grew to be such a nuisance that the worlds longest rabbit fence had to be built to help control them. Governments have tried everything but there are still problems with the bunnies.
Wilkinson said when planes land in Australia today, they are fumigated before people can get off, so as to prevent any other new species running amok.
Hebert and Hajibabaei are working on DNA barcoding to pro­­tect human health by ad­vancing science’s capacity to identify disease organisms and their transmission pathways. As well, barcoding will help protect biodiversity at a time when it is threatened by climate change. And when all species are catalogued, scanners would identify invasive spe­cies.
One of the most practical applications for the DNA bar­coding will be to identify species with a quick scan and a hand-held scanner, rather than longer and more inconvenient tests. The work can be done more quickly, too.
For Australian officials, it means being able to scan any in­­com­ing plane or ship to en­sure there are no new species en­tering the country.
“They spread powder,” Wil­kinson remembered of the work­ers who boarded his plane before he was allowed to exit.
“For them to be able to iden­­tify species would be huge,” he added.
He also said his trip with Hebert took them to four cities in four days, being constantly on the move. The trip was successful in New South Wales, where the government pledged $1.2-mil­lion for the barcoding research.
“They’re trying to raise $5-million in total so Australia can become one of the [research] nodes,” Wilkinson said.
That is a plan devised by researchers at the University of Guelph – to have the barcoding and DNA scanning work car­ried out around the world. There are huge numbers of species that have to have their DNA identified.
“The University of Guelph has a world-wide reputation for its breakthroughs in the DNA bar­coding project,” Ala­stair Summerlee, President and Vice-Chancellor of the Univer­sity of Guelph, said last month when the province announced a $5-million grant to the school for the research.
Summerlee added the announce­ment would “send a strong signal to researchers at major institutions around the world that Ontario is home to incred­ible research infrastructure and a government that supports its scientists and their tremen­dously valuable work.”
The money will enable researchers at the university to work with over 100 researchers from 25 countries to create the world’s largest reference lib­ra­ry of DNA samples – con­sisting of 500,000 species.
Wilkinson said in Australia, the fundraising is being coordi­nated by the Royal Australian Museum, which already has a large number of DNA samples available for recording.
“It’s a natural fit for them to participate,” he said.
Wilkinson added that Mon­ash University in Melbourne is also interested, and it has links to another nearby Cana­dian University. Monash has a new laboratory with an elec­tronic microscope that is one of the most powerful in the world. It is the sister equipment to a microscope at McMaster Uni­ver­sity in Hamilton.
Wilkinson said the micro­scope in Australia is so sen­sitive it has to be vibration free, and is constructed on a huge concrete and isolated pad.
“It’s so powerful you can see atoms with it,” he said.
He added that he is hopeful more grant announcements from Australia with be coming in the future.
Among the applications be­ing done world wide, an Irish researcher recently determined ways of using the barcoding system to identify different species in meats, and a scan can even determine if a single steak comes from a cloned animal.