Cracking the code

August 7, 2018

As published on the July/August 2018 Water Canada Magazine
By Britney Hess

Ontario unlocks genomic information to propel the circular economy.

News_20180808_01Understanding the genomics of our biological planet is key to addressing the grand challenges facing our world today, from climate change and global population growth to increasing food and energy demands, health issues, and protection of our natural resources.
Every living organism has DNA—a code that directs its biological functions and influences how it grows and interacts with the environment. Genomics is the science of understanding, interpreting, and harnessing this genetic code. In addition to innovations in healthcare, agriculture, and advanced manufacturing, the insights gleaned from genomics are resulting in the creation of environmentally-friendly solutions that are allowing us to improve the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the way we extract minerals and energy from the earth.
Ontario Genomics is a not-for-profit organization focused entirely on stimulating, enabling, and nurturing genomics innovations across all sectors of the bio-economy. Connecting scientists, ideas, and partner organizations from across the province and around the world, Ontario Genomics works with project teams to develop plans and secure funding to enable the development and application of solutions for our circular economy. Several of these projects are developing innovative genomics-based techniques for water monitoring, treatment, and re-use—three of which are highlighted here.

Real-time water toxin detectionNews_20180808_02

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are a major environmental problem and a growing concern in Canadian waters. Harmful bloom events are caused by cyanobacteria, which has negative impacts on other organisms through production of toxins and oxygen deprivation and severe impacts on human health, aquatic ecosystems, and the economy. Climate change, nutrient imbalances from phosphorus, and warming water temperatures provide optimal conditions for growth of harmful bacteria.
Environmental Bio-Detection Products Inc. (EBPI) is an Ontariobased biotechnology company working with researchers at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo to develop a rapid on-site detection platform for water contaminants produced by bacteria found in HABs. The most prevalent of these toxins is Microcystin-LR (MC-LR). The team developed a portable hand-held detector that employs DNA aptamers, which are short DNA strands, to detect and signal the presence of MC-LR contaminants in real-time with sufficient sensitivity to meet World Health Organization drinking water guidelines. The platform has also shown promise for detection of other small molecule contaminants in water samples.

Responsible solutions for wastewater treatment

With recurring droughts and increasing water shortages, wastewater is becoming an ever-more valuable resource. The main objectives of wastewater treatment are to protect the planet from harmful toxins and to restore our water supply.
Based in Renfrew, Ontario, Bishop Water Technologies (BWT) has partnered with Dr. Chris Weisener at the University of Windsor to understand and improve their environmentally-friendly treatment solution for wastewater. By characterizing the microbial ecosystem through genomic sampling, the team is working together to identify and quantify the microbes and to determine their activities in relation to nutrient removal from wastewater. BWT manufactures a novel microbe-based solution called BioCord which is a man-made, inert, polymer scaffold. It provides more surface area for nutrient cycling biofilm to develop, enabling the removal of nitrates and phosphates from wastewater, and reducing point source nutrient loads to the Great Lakes at a fraction of the cost and without any chemicals.

Reducing sulphur contamination in mining wastewaters

Sulfur-contaminated wastewater is a large global mining-related environmental liability. Bacteria drive the key sulfur compound transformations responsible for water contamination, however little is known about how these bacteria affect the sulfur geochemistry in mining wastewater impoundments.
Consequently, these impoundments are viewed as a “black box.” With mines in every province and territory, and as pressures on Canada’s freshwater water supplies grow, there is an urgent need to gain greater understanding and develop sustainable approaches to the treatment of mining wastewaters.
An international team led by Dr. Lesley Warren at the University of Toronto and Dr. Jillian Banfield at the University of California, Berkeley is working to apply genomics, geochemistry, and modelling to mining wastewaters with the objective of developing innovative biological monitoring, management, and treatment tools for sulphur compounds in their wastewaters, as well as support science-informed, cost-benefit decision-making for the mining sector. This project, the first of its kind in Canada and possibly the world, involves three mining and two environmental consulting companies, as well as provincial and national sector industry associations and government.

Genomics is the most transformative technology of the 21st century. Recent advancements are accelerating our knowledge and the opportunity to develop sustainable solutions to protect and treat our waters, as well as innovative applications across all sectors of our bioeconomy to help move Canada towards a circular economy.