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Genetics research

Learn about biotechnology, how we use genetics for conservation and what the Aquatic Biotechnology Laboratory does.

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About biotechnology

Genetic biotechnology deals with biological processes which let organisms live. The term biotechnology doesn't necessarily refer to ‘high tech' applications. Applications can range from practices that are less reliant on technology (such as standard breeding programs) to those that are very technological (such as genetic engineering).

At Fisheries and Oceans Canada, our work with biotechnology focuses on genomics (genetics), so we can:

  • study aquatic organisms
  • provide information to help regulate aquatic biotechnology products

Using DNA and RNA

All biological organisms have DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid) and RNA (ribose nucleic acid).

DNA is the genetic plan written into the cells of an organism and passed on from parents to offspring. We can look at DNA to find similarities and differences between organisms, within and between:

  • species
  • individuals
  • populations

RNA is the first level of how cells use the genetic plan written in the DNA. When we look at the RNA, we're looking at gene expression.

Biotechnology research

Our Maritimes region biotechnology program uses molecular biology to investigate the genetics and genomics of a variety of aquatic organisms. This means primarily looking at DNA from samples of a wide variety of organisms, including:

  • vertebrates
  • microorganisms
  • aquatic invertebrates

Our research aims to:

  • identify biological information, such as:
    • species identification
    • parentage
    • population structure
    • ecosystem health
  • develop molecular biology tools

Species identification

We can't identify all species based on their appearance alone, and in some cases, we don't even have the entire organism to identify. Using DNA-based methods to identify species allows us to use small pieces of tissue, such as:

  • blood
  • scales
  • fin clips
  • muscles
  • hemolymph
  • body mucous

Species identification is important for measuring biodiversity.


DNA-based tests can trace an individual back to its parents. This can help minimize inbreeding in aquaculture and other breeding programs where fish (or invertebrates) are raised in a group.

Population structure

Population genetics looks at the frequency of alleles between groups of individuals to see if there are differences. The results of these studies provide information important for management and/or conservation of populations or species.

Ecosystem health

To help determine the health of a whole ecosystem, and how it changes over time, we look at microbial ecology using metagenomics. This involves looking at a piece of DNA from all bacteria in a water sample to see what bacteria are there and how they change.

Bacteria are an indication of ecosystem health because they respond quickly to changes in the environment and are a food source for many microscopic animals.

Molecular biology tools

We need to develop the right tools that allow us to conduct genetic studies.

Scientific literature is an important source of information, but in some cases, the information we have is insufficient. When this happens, we need to obtain the necessary information ourselves. We can do this by isolating the loci or adapting procedures for the specific species or research question.

Aquatic Biotechnology Laboratory

Biotechnology is an area of biology that is driven by technology. The Aquatic Biotechnology Laboratory focuses on molecular biology and provides cost-effective:

  • expertise
  • personnel
  • equipment

Contact the laboratory

You may contact the laboratory by emailing Lorraine Hamilton, the laboratory manager, at

A study on Atlantic salmon and other finfish species

Participants are conducting this ongoing study in support of conservation and management of Atlantic salmon and other finfish species.

Study participants

Participants include:

  • Manon Cassista-Da Ros, molecular biologist
  • Carolyn Harvie, assessment biostatistician
  • Louise de Mestral Bezanson, biological technician
  • Patrick O'Reilly, research scientist

Genetic variation and fitness in Atlantic Salmon

The southern half of the wild migrating Atlantic salmon population is rapidly declining. We're looking for ways to minimize the loss of both genetic variation and fitness in small semi-captive populations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

We're using stock information obtained through molecular genetic data and kinship and parentage analyses to:

  • maximize retention of founder genetic variation
  • minimize loss of genetic variation in subsequent generations due to genetic drift (random variation in the frequency of a given gene in a population)

In collaboration with researchers from several universities, we're also investigating our ability to minimize adaptation to captive conditions and loss of fitness in the wild. To adapt existing strategies, we'll use information on:

  • rates of loss of genetic variation
  • management practices that cause changes in:
    • survival
    • behaviour
    • morphology

Our ultimate goal is to maintain salmon that:

  • can successfully survive and reproduce in native river habitat
  • retain sufficient genetic variation to enable populations to adapt to future environmental challenges

Population and genetic structure

Knowing the genetic structuring in fish helps us to identify:

  • fish stocks
  • groups of individuals demographically independent of other such groups
  • components of a species' biodiversity for broader conservation purposes

To do this, we're analyzing repeating DNA tracts, including:

  • single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)
  • major histocompatiblity complex (MHC)

For Atlantic salmon, we have accumulated genotypic data on over 18,000 individuals from over 40 populations in the Maritimes. We're also carrying out research on Atlantic cod.

Interactions between wild and aquaculture salmon

The Bay of Fundy/Gulf of Maine is home to:

  • a large amount of Atlantic salmon farming
  • many low-numbered and endangered wild populations

We're looking at the possibility of aquaculture escapes impacting weakened wild populations through:

  • direct impact, such as breeding
  • indirect impact, such as pathogen introduction and transmission

One of our projects involves analyzing MHC variation in:

  • wild populations prior to and after the introduction of aquaculture to the region
  • populations near and distant to Passamoquoddy/Cobscook Bay, which are areas of high concentrations of salmon farming
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