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By Karen Herland
Two major genomics research projects representing $22 million will be housed at the laboratories of the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics of Concordia. The April 20 announcement includes these among a dozen to be funded over four years in partnership between Genome Canada and national and international partners under their Applied Genomics Research in Bioproducts or Crops (ABC) program.
Joseph Ecker of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies chaired the international review committee that selected these projects out of 48 applications. He said that the excellence of the retained submissions “will significantly advance Canadian science.”
Louise Dandurand, Vice-President Research and Graduate Studies added, “These two awards to outstanding national scientific leaders illustrate the quality and maturity of research being conducted at Concordia in this field. Their impact on graduate training will be incredible.”
Adrian Tsang, of the Department of Biology, and his co-investigators were awarded nearly $17.5 million, the largest single project geared to environmental sustainability funded in Genome Canada’s history. The Genozymes for Bioproducts and Bioprocesses Development project will further research into deploying fungal enzymes to break down biomass (leaves, branches, etc.) into sugars for conversion into fuels and chemicals.
This project will also explore the use of novel enzymes in replacing chemical processes in the pulp and paper industry and in enhancing the digestibility of animal feed. These possibilities will allow what was once considered plant waste to be converted into valued products and replace harmful industrial processes with environmentally sustainable methods. The sustainability of converting waste into other products is an important component of the project. Journalism’s David Secko will develop a communications strategy for this element of the project.
The new processes developed will not only be environmentally sustainable, they will also be “more cost-effective. If it is not cost-effective, industry won’t use it.”
Tsang said the funding will allow researchers to identify and characterize massive numbers of fungal enzymes “so that we can choose the appropriate enzymes for different applications.” He is aware this research may not lead to the identification of “a silver bullet, but we will continue to improve industrial processes and develop new products.”
Meanwhile, Vincent Martin is co-lead on a different project relying on synthetic biology. This project, shared with the University of Calgary and involving researchers in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario, will identify and classify the genes in 75 different plants that contribute to the synthesis of high-value phytochemical compounds.
Although much of the plant biochemistry will be conducted in labs elsewhere, Concordia will be “the hub of the wheel, all of their data will be coming to us for constructing strains of yeasts that will produce these compounds” says Martin of the research that he is conducting along with Reginald Storms, his colleague in the Biology department. The ABC grant will allocate $4.6 million to this aspect of the project.
Creating a catalogue of plant genes will allow for the assembly of synthetic pathways to reproduce in microbes the natural processes used by plants that produce a variety of medicines, fragrances, insecticides and other plant-produced products.
“These microbes will create medicines like codeine that now require fields of poppies to produce,” says Martin. The benefits of certain crops will be derived without the land use necessary to raise the plants, in climates where the plants can not thrive or from plants with restricted use, like cannabis.
Tsang is working closely with Justin Powlowski of Biochemistry and Professor Greg Butler of Computer Science. The new projects will require both Tsang and Martin to expand their teams.
“Most of the money in the two projects will be spent on creating jobs and invested in the training of highly qualified researchers and students,” said Tsang.
Martin said that although the announcement has only just been made public, the calibre of research being conducted here is well-established, “I’ve already received emails from people asking for positions and opportunities.”