Biotechnology and aquatic ecosystem health

Learn how we operate our program for biotechnology and aquatic ecosystem health.

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Theme priorities

For the biotechnology and aquatic ecosystem health theme, our goal is to:

  • develop and apply biotechnology and genomics tools
  • assess, mitigate risks and restore aquatic ecosystems

Healthy and productive ecosystems aren't only home to an enormous number of species, but are also the basis for:

  • a thriving resource industry
  • healthy coastal communities

Canada's oceans and their resources are significant contributors to the overall Canadian economy, with:

  • over $20 billion in annual economic activity
  • many billions more in ocean trade passing through

Oceans are facing severe environmental threats from:

  • over exploitation
  • pollution from land-based and sea-based activities
  • the alteration and destruction of habitats and ecosystems

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has responsibilities under the 1997 Oceans Action Act. We're a global leader in promoting the sustainable development and integrated management of our oceans, which includes the management of estuarine coastal and marine ecosystems.

Genomic indicators for environmental stress

Aquatic ecosystems change naturally and constantly. However, biodiversity and species at risk are threatened by changes caused by external factors, such as:

  • contaminants
  • climate change
  • agricultural runoff
  • urban development

We're developing genomic indicators to detect and monitor environmental stress and recovery in aquatic ecosystems. So far, our scientists have found that gene expression in fish can:

  • change when subjected to environmental contamination
  • indicate a negative ecosystem change

Once the ecosystem's health has been benchmarked, a number of approaches can be taken depending on what's needed, like:

  • protection
  • conservation
  • mitigation
  • restoration

Cleaning contaminated sites using bacteria

We've estimated that up to 10 (insert 7 up high beside the 10) tonnes of crude oil impact marine and estuarine environments annually. Accidental oil spills have become an environmental issue of priority concern off the coast of Canada, including the Arctic. This is due to increases in marine transport and the development of offshore oil and gas reserves.

To help clean these sites, we've developed world renowned expertise using bioremediation in contaminated sites for:

  • evaluation
  • monitoring
  • improvement

Bioremediation is the use of living microorganisms to destroy or reduce contaminants, such as toxic chemicals, in the aquatic environment.

DFO's national Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER) is developing new sensitive, cost-effective, rapid assays (tests to detect the presence of certain traits or chemicals). These assays are based on recent advances in biotechnology. They're used for restoring the ecological health of contaminated sites in coastal environments, such as Syndey Harbour in Nova Scotia, one of the most hazardous toxic waste sites in Canada.

The 2 useful techniques are:

  1. bioremediation
  2. bioaugmentation

We developed ecologically relevant regulatory biotests and biomarker assays to assess toxic substance:

  • cumulative effects
  • risk to ecosystems and human health

Using radiotracer and gene-probe analysis, we assess the ability of microbes to clean up organic contaminants. Key findings indicate that indigenous sediment microorganisms have the capacity to degrade and/or transform many contaminants of concern.

Monitoring aquatic ecosystems

Water sampling

Water sampling

DFO has developed a number of programs with the National Research Council, including oil spill mitigation strategies and techniques to monitor habitat recovery.

Researchers are developing new sensitive, cost-effective rapid assays based on recent advances in biotechnology, for monitoring recovery in habitat quality.

We've performed field trials using microbes with stable bioremediation potential on controlled oil spills in coastal environments. This has allowed us to test and refine operating procedures and share them with public and private sector laboratories. This lets more people benefit from this technology and enjoy healthy ecosystems.

Environmental changes and gene expression

DFO has developed genomics capabilities for:

  • evaluating the actual and likely responses to:
    • pollution
    • domestication
    • climate change
    • habitat degradation
  • investigating the effects of environmental change on gene expression in aquatic organisms

Gene expression profiling allows us to identify altered physiological pathways caused by domestication or environmental change. In the future, it may provide early warning systems for detecting aquatic environment:

  • stress
  • pollution
  • habitat degradation

It works by using specialized techniques to determine gene expression, which means when genes are ‘turned on.'

Ecosystem impacts of scallop drag netting

DFO has conducted research on the effect that bottom trawling has on the reproduction of:

  • corals
  • sponges
  • other bottom-dwelling sea creatures

Scientists have found that colonies exposed to dragging:

  • were less fertile
  • suffered more injuries
  • were frequently asexually derived

Corals and sponges can reproduce either sexually or asexually. However, sexual reproduction fosters biodiversity and improves the chances for future adaptation and survival.

We've studied the genetic impacts of scallop drag nets on the hydroid (white weed) Sertularia cupressina using DNA analysis. We found that, in hard-fished areas, the organisms could lose biodiversity and the ability to survive and adapt over future generations.

Similar work on soft corals showed no shift to asexual reproduction, but the sea-floor disturbances caused premature release of larvae. This produced daughter colonies that suffered high mortality.

Future research will inform regulators on the need to protect ocean corals and other organisms.

Using genetic marking instead of tagging

Genetic marking is used to help protect vulnerable, endangered and protected species. This includes those listed under the:

  • Species at Risk Act
  • Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada
  • Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species

We generate valuable information that can be used in designing marine protected areas (MPAs) using tools such as:

  • extensive DNA surveys
  • tracking the genetic diversity of species

DFO scientists also use genetic methods to help identify population units that are:

  • vulnerable
  • threatened
  • deserving of protection designation

Conventional tagging by fisheries management is being replaced with genetic methods for strain and stock identification, which:  

  • doesn't harm fish
  • reduces the cost of tagging fish
  • increases the effectiveness of large monitoring programs

This will also help in the protection and enhancement of biodiversity and aquatic fish habitat, including species at risk.

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