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Strategy Paper Proposes Genomics Research to Fight Threats to Canadian Forest Health

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Genomics research and the enabling resources it creates can help address some of the major threats and challenges – including invasive and indigenous insect pests, invasive plants and climate change – now faced by the stewards of the country’s forests and associated industries.

The paper, Canadian Forest Health Genomics:  Canadian Strengths Address Forestry Challenges, proposes a rationale for harnessing and directing new interdisciplinary genomics research across Canada (links to this and related background materials are appended below).  Outcomes of this research would provide better understanding of and tools to help mitigate the threats facing Canada’s forests: destructive pests such as the spruce budworm, mountain pine beetle and emerald ash borer; climatic shifts; and increased global consumption of renewable resources.  The perspectives captured by the strategy paper were first discussed at a national one-day workshop held on March 31, 2009 in Toronto.  Participants included:  academic, provincial and federal researchers; public policy and decision-makers; and industry and community groups.  The workshop was organized and supported by Canada’s six regional genome centres – Genome British Columbia, Genome Alberta, Genome Prairie, Ontario Genomics Institute, Genome Quebec and Genome Atlantic – along with Natural Resources Canada, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation.

“With more than 400 million hectares, Canada contains 10% of the planet’s forests, and products derived from our forests account for $33.6 billion worth of exports, or more than half of our country’s trade balance,” commented Dr. Alan E. Winter, President and CEO, Genome British Columbia.    “There is now widespread agreement among researchers in academia and government that genomics can play a critical role in protecting our forests and maintaining Canada’s position internationally as the largest exporter of forest products.”

“It is estimated that invasive pine beetles have already cost the Canadian economy billions of dollars and lead to the devastation of 10 million hectares of pine trees in British Columbia,” commented Dr. Christian Burks, President and CEO of the Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI).  “Without mitigating strategies and tools, other destructive pests will continue to have a comparable impact on forests across Canada.”

The report details the significant impact genomics can have on existing forest management practices in fighting these threats, including the identification of genes that confer either hardiness in different conditions or resistance to pests; the development of innovative technologies to breed for pest-resistant tree and plant lines; and the ability to accurately identify and monitor pests in the context of integrated pest management.

“Having academics, community groups, funders and government  all working together to develop a cohesive approach to incorporating genomics into existing forest health management practices is an extremely positive step forward for the sector,”  commented Dr.  Joerg Bohlmann, Professor, Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia and one of the authors of the strategy paper.  “The use of genomics and related approaches has the potential to swiftly and dramatically improve our understanding of key processes and interactions in forest ecosystems, and to develop improved tools and approaches of sustainable forest management based on that understanding.”

“By integrating the expertise from researchers, the Canadian Forest Service and other similar international agencies, provincial forest management groups and the forest industry, we will be able to capitalize on genomics research to successfully meet the many challenges facing the health of our nation’s forests,” said Dr. David Bailey, President and CEO of Genome Alberta.  “We hope that this strategy paper will provide a starting point from which to build on the strong partnerships that have already been forged among the major stakeholders in Canadian forest health.”