The creation of Genome Canada in 2000 was a bold idea come to life on the heels of the Human Genome Project.
From the beginning, Genome Canada and the six regional Genome Centres harnessed the power and potential of genomics to improve the lives of Canadians and advance Canada’s leadership in the field.
Thanks to two decades of investment in the Canadian Genomics Enterprise, big research breakthroughs and transformative technological advancements, Canada’s genomics researchers are expanding the margins of what we once thought possible in the life sciences as they chart the future of healthcare, agriculture and manufacturing across the bioeconomy.
Genome Canada is born
In the 1990s, the Human Genome Project captivates the world. But Canada doesn’t have a coordinated national approach. A group of determined Canadian scientists convinces the federal government to make a bold investment in genomics to ensure Canada doesn’t miss out on the benefits of this breakthrough science. Genome Canada is established on February 8, 2000. Our mandate is to build Canada’s technological and human capacity in genomics. Six regional Genome Centres are established soon afterward (five in 2000 and one in 2005), ensuring regional relevancy in Canada’s genomics mission.
Photo: Henry Friesen, Founding Chair of Genome Canada (Genome Canada 2000 -2001 Annual Report)
Where genomics and society intersect
We pilot GE3LS research (Genomics and its Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social aspects) and become a global leader in looking at the intersection of genomics and society – from addressing health inequities for Indigenous peoples, to assessing the economic impact of an unexpected trade ban on agricultural exports, to quickly considering the implications of benefit-sharing obligations in various countries when selecting plants for a research study.
10 technology platforms launched
We launch Technology Platforms to provide researchers with easy, cost-effective access to leading-edge technologies that underpin research breakthroughs across diverse sectors, including health, agriculture, forestry, environment, fisheries and mining. By 2020 the 10 existing platforms are: the Pan-Canadian Proteomic Centre, the BC Cancer Agency Genome Sciences Centre Genomics Technology Platform, the Metabolomics Innovation Centre, the Centre for Applied Genomics, the Centre for Phenogenomics, the Network Biology Collaborative Centre, the Canadian Data Integration Centre, the McGill Applied Genomics Innovation Core (MAGIC), the Centre for Advanced Proteomic and Chemogenomic Analyses and the Canadian Centre for Computational Genomics.
Breeding better potatoes
Food security is a major focus of our genomics research, and potatoes – a vital food staple around the world – are a priority area. We are a global leader in funding research that improves potato quality and health, funding 33 research projects. For example, Genome Atlantic’s Canadian Potato Genome Project, part of an international consortium, helps develop a “44K microarray chip” to identify genes related to tuber quality and tuber health traits, such as common scab and late blight.
Early immune response: Key host genes identified
Our funding of work on infectious disease, the leading cause of premature mortality around the world, grows with a ground-breaking Genome Prairie project. This research uses tools developed by the Human Genome Project and computational analysis to identify which host genes are turned on – or off – when cells are infected by bacteria or viruses. Researchers determine which genes are important in early immune response to infectious disease, and produce new computational methods of analysis, now freely available to the research community.
Quickest SARS sequencing in the world
More than 400 Canadians get sick and 44 die following the 2002 SARS coronavirus outbreak. The University of British Columbia’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, repurposes all its labs for the rapid sequencing of the virus. Canada’s scientists are the fastest in the world to generate a genome sequence of SARS-CoV – in just six days. It’s a huge leap from the early days of gene sequencing. This knowledge and expertise are later transferred to other ground-breaking work on the salmon and conifer genomes, for example.
Healthier cows: Better beef and milk
The reach of our international network grows, as does our role as a convener of world-leading genomics scientists. Through Genome British Columbia and Genome Alberta, we are a major funding partner in the $53 million international Bovine Genome Sequencing Project. The full-length cDNA sequencing of the cow genome is provided free to public databases for use by biomedical and agricultural researchers in advancing bovine health and breeding around the globe.
Connecting Canadian genomics talent to the world
We invest in the Public Population Project in Genomics and Society, a not-for-profit international consortium, based in Montreal, dedicated to human population genomics. We also invest in the Structural Genomics Consortium, a network supporting the discovery of new medicine through open science led in Canada (University of Toronto) and involving several international partners in academia and industry. Together with the regional Genome Centres, we support iBOL (International Barcode of Life), a 26-country research alliance based at the University of Guelph. All three projects are supported by our International Consortium Initiatives, designed to make Canadian researchers leaders in cutting-edge, international and large-scale genomics research projects.
Rapid diagnostic testing of infectious disease
A growing focus of our funded health research is faster diagnosis and treatment of infectious disease – before it leads to complications or death. With support from Génome Québec from the outset, a Université Laval project addresses problems associated with delayed diagnosis, including antibiotic overuse, drug resistance and difficulty controlling epidemics. This work leads to later development (in 2014) of a simple, cost-efficient and rapid molecular testing instrument. Healthcare providers in hospitals, clinics and pharmacies use this tool to diagnose and select the best treatment for several infectious diseases – all in less than one hour.
Image courtesy of GenePOC / Michel G. Bergeron
Sudden cardiac arrest gene found
The Atlantic Medical Genetics & Genomics Initiative, co-funded with Genome Atlantic, develops a diagnostic kit that screens people for a genetic mutation that indicates whether they’re susceptible to sudden cardiac death. A defibrillator can then be implanted to prevent this. The research team later (2018) wins a Governor General Innovation Award for their discovery. This is a shining example of how our co-funding model enables the development of new tools, techniques and processes that help address pressing challenges in health care.
More resilient forests
Outbreaks of insect pests, fungal pathogens, exotic insects and invasive species threaten Canada’s forests, the backbone of an $81.8 billion forestry industry. The Conifer Genome Exploration project sequences two conifer species: white spruce and loblolly pine. This provides information useful for breeding, tailoring future plantings in response to climate change and improving conifers as a potential feedstock for biofuels. Canada now leads the world in forestry genomics.
Greener energy production in oil sands
As Canada transitions to more renewable sources of energy, Genome Canada-funded research helps reduce the environmental impacts of oil, gas and coal extraction. For example, a University of Calgary project, Metagenomics for Greener Production and Extraction of Hydrocarbon Energy, helps minimize the environmental impact of oil sands production by identifying ways to decrease water use and greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance the extraction of clean burning gas from coal beds.
Early champion of rapid data release
As part of our commitment to the rapid release of genomic data for the advancement of science and human health globally, we play a lead role in convening scientists, ethicists, lawyers, journal editors and funders from around the world. The Data Release Workshop held in Toronto further defines and reaffirms policies related to rapid data release, including development of best practices.
Celebrating 10 years
Through the efforts of the Canadian Genomics Enterprise, over $900 million in co-funding has been raised and committed from inception to March 31, 2010. Combined with $800 million in investments by Genome Canada, the Enterprise has thus far committed over $1.7 billion to genomics and proteomics research.
Not just another headache: Migraine gene discovered
Advancing human health is foundational to genomics research. With our support, scientists at Université de Montréal and Oxford University identify a gene associated with common migraines. Previously, migraine genes were only found in the rare cases of headaches combined with limb weakness. This study focuses on common types of migraine and genes controlling brain excitability. Researchers find the mutation by comparing the DNA from migraine sufferers with that of non-sufferers.
New genetic clues to Autism revealed
Genome Canada and CIHR-funded research continues to lead to exciting breakthroughs in understanding Autism, such as the identification of specific DNA anomalies associated with this developmental disorder. Ground-breaking work at Toronto’s SickKids, through Autism Spectrum Disorders: Genomes to Outcomes, marks Canada’s contribution to an ambitious international initiative that aims to sequence and analyze the genomes of 10,000 people with Autism. A more complete understanding of the genetic elements of Autism can help doctors give better, more personalized care to patients.
A grain of truth: Cracking the wheat genome
An international team, including Canadian scientists, publishes the first sequence of the wheat genome, a breakthrough that helps address food insecurity and climate change, including a projected 70 per cent increase in global food demand by 2050. The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium is in the process of sequencing each of the 21 chromosomes of bread wheat. The consortium’s goal is a completely mapped wheat genome, which is five times larger than the human genome.
Tastier greenhouse tomatoes
The Canadian greenhouse vegetable industry is an essential source of fresh vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. It generates over $1 billion from retail sales and exports. Alongside Ontario Genomics, we invest in Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a not-for-profit dedicated to horticulture science and innovation. Vineland works with multiple partners to use genomics to increase competitiveness of the greenhouse vegetable industry, create a genetic toolbox for tomato flavour differentiation and reduce crop loss using broad-range disease resistance. This work led to the creation of Platform Genetics, a spin-off company harnessing reverse genetics for trait development and crop improvement.
Personalized breast cancer screening
Breast cancer is the most common cancer and second leading cause of cancer death for Canadian women. Current breast cancer screening recommendations are based primarily on age and family history. Personalized screening, based on an individual’s genome, would help doctors identify 10 times more women at high risk for the disease. With Génome Québec, Ontario Genomics and other partners, we invest nearly $30 million in a project that, through sequencing the genes of 100,000 women, aims to ultimately predict every woman’s risk for breast cancer using only a saliva sample and lifestyle information. Provinces are now equipped to put in place measures that fundamentally change how their health systems approach this cancer risk. Predicting individual risk and offering personalized screening protocols will save many lives through earlier detection and treatment of breast cancer.
Nature’s first responders to Arctic oil spills
As a result of reduced sea ice cover and ice-free summers, the Northwest Passage is a high traffic route. With increased shipping and cruise ship activity, the risk of accidental releases of diesel or bunker fuel, or other transportation-related contaminants, has grown. Together with Genome Prairie, we support GENICE: Microbial Genomics for Oil Spill Preparedness in Canada’s Arctic Marine Environment. The project uses microbial genomics to generate credible, science-based evidence on the role and potential of bioremediation to deal with oil spills in the Arctic Ocean.
Solving the unsolved: Improved diagnosis of rare diseases
Canadian genomic research helps improve diagnosis of rare diseases, of which over 7,000 are currently known. Eight per cent of Canadians are affected by a rare disease, mostly children. A quarter of rare disease patients wait five to 30 years for a diagnosis; 40 per cent are misdiagnosed; and half never receive a confirmed diagnosis. In 2017, through Ontario Genomics, we fund the Care4Rare project at CHEO. This work more than doubles our ability to diagnose unsolved rare disease, while building the infrastructure and tools needed to improve rare disease diagnosis worldwide. This and other Genome Canada funded projects across the country help position Canada as a world leader in rare disease research.
Game-changer for oysters
The oyster industry in Eastern Canada is expanding rapidly and having a reliable source of superior, faster-growing oyster seed is essential to meeting the industry’s growth targets. Genome Atlantic and Génome Québec are working with industry to develop Canada’s first strain of selectively-bred Eastern Oyster that could mature 20 per cent faster than wild-caught oysters – a game-changer for the industry.
Canada is 2nd worldwide
Bibliometric analysis shows that Canadian genomics researchers are particularly active in patenting their research outcomes. In 2019, Canada is second only to the U.S. in genomics patents.
COVID-19: Genomics on a mission
When the pandemic strikes, we activate our community immediately. Leveraging $40 million in federal funds, we launch the Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGeN), which generates accessible and usable genomics data to track transmission, inform policy decisions and guide testing and tracing strategies, vaccine development and drug treatments. The national network will sequence the genomes of up to 10,000 Canadians and of 150,000 viral samples. By creating common data analysis and sharing standards, and bringing genomics capacity to our provincial public health labs, CanCOGeN lays a foundation for Canada’s response to future COVID-19 waves and other outbreaks.
80 spinoff companies created
By now, Genome Canada has supported the creation of more than 80 spinoff companies. One example is AbCellera Biologics, a leading biotech start-up that grew from Genome Canada and Genome BC funded projects and now boasts 100+ new high-tech jobs in Canada and has attracted $50-100 million of new foreign investment. AbCellera focuses on the discovery of therapeutic antibodies using innovative technologies that scan, decode and analyze antibodies from natural immune systems. Their project on developing antibody-based therapeutics for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy fibrosis leads to a solution that in 2020 contributes to the world’s first COVID-19 clinical trial for a Potential Monoclonal Antibody Treatment.
Gamers improving gut research
The human gut contains trillions of microbes, some of which are associated with inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, autism, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, obesity and others. Successfully characterizing these microbial populations would help scientists better understand their role in human health. Together with Génome Québec and other partners, we fund an innovative citizen science project in collaboration with Gearbox Software. The Borderlands Science game harnesses the skills of video gamers to map the gut microbiome, saving researchers hundreds of thousands of hours in training computers to do the same. The game encodes the DNA of each microbe as a string of bricks of four different shapes and colours. By connecting these blocks to each other, players help scientists estimate the similarity between each microbe. The solutions generated will help improve research and develop cures and treatments for various diseases and conditions.
Genome Canada’s 20th in the news
- Genome Canada: 20 years of collaborating on the future, Canadian Science Policy Centre webinar (August 13, 2020)
- Coders of Wood, Designers of Water: Canada’s next Bio-revolution, RBC Disruptors (September 8, 2020)
- A Paulicyworks Milestone 2020: Genome Canada – 20 years in the making, Research Money blog (July 27, 2020)
- 20 Years in, Genome Canada Welcomes New President and Exciting Future, BIOTECanada Insights Magazine (April 6, 2020)
- Message from Dr. Rob Annan, our President and CEO, on the exciting year ahead, Genome Canada blog (January 9, 2020)
Celebrating 20 years
At the two-decade mark, we have supported $3.9 billion in total investment including $1.6 billion federal dollars and $2.3 billion in co-funding through 6 regional Centres.