The Gene Detectives

Researchers use U of G genomics facility to study populations and viral diseases

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Jeff Gross at work in the University of Guelph's genomics facility.

Jeff Gross at work in U of G’s genomics facility.

When Ebola broke out in West Africa last year, health workers and scientists worldwide faced a number of challenges. Researchers scrambled to learn more about the genetics of the virus, key to finding treatments for the deadly disease.

That meant working with viral RNA and human DNA in order to read the genetic code of the virus. And that involved plenty of grunt work using DNA-sequencing machines in a genomics facility at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, according to a New Yorker magazine story published last fall.

All of that activity happened far from the genomics facility housed in U of G’s Advanced Analysis Centre (AAC) in the Summerlee Science Complex. But Jeff Gross, DNA sequencing and next-generation sequencing technician, says the same science behind that genetic detective work is also used in the AAC to help Guelph researchers with a variety of studies from population dynamics to other kinds of viral diseases.

Picture an organism’s genome as a single library-spanning volume. Scientists in the genomics facility wield enzymes to cut that library apart and use sequencing machines to read its individual “books” or genes.

Sometimes they sequence entire libraries, such as the genetic material of bacteria. Often researchers zero in on specific parts of a genome to learn about anything from biodiversity to grape antifreeze genes.

Gross started working part-time in the genomics facility while completing his undergrad in molecular biology and genetics.

“I enjoy learning about molecular techniques,” he says. “I especially enjoy seeing peers come in with projects and having the knowledge to help them out.”

That learning never stops: he says the “next big thing” is nanopore sequencing. Dispensing with cutting and pasting, this method will allow scientists to read entire chromosomes from start to finish. Whole DNA strands will move through a membrane while being read, like spaghetti passing through a colander.

“I still love coaching students and giving things a personal touch,” says Gross.

For example, master’s student Julia Hooker uses the facility to study a viral disease threatening grapevines in Ontario and elsewhere. She’s working with Prof. Baozhong Meng, Molecular and Cellular Biology.

They hope to learn which of several viral strains are infecting vines collected in the Niagara Peninsula, where they affect grape quality and harvest. “We’re seeing huge losses in grape yields,” says Hooker, B.Sc.’14.

She’s learning how to extract RNA from those viral strains and make DNA clones, which are easier to work with. “We’re using the sequence to find out which strains of the virus are most prominent in these grapevine samples.”

Tony Kess, a PhD candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology, uses the genomics facility to study marine snails from Spain. In the ocean’s intertidal zone, some populations are submerged by water while others are exposed to air, sunlight and predators.

Working with Prof. Liz Boulding, Kess looks at how those conditions might ultimately prompt different snail populations to evolve into separate species. The facility allows him to look at genes underlying this split and at gene flow, or exchange of genes between populations.

That work resembles his master’s project at the University of British Columbia, where he looked at “populations” of forestry tree species. Whether in trees or in snails, he says, this work might help in resource management and conservation biology.

The project has also helped Kess in his own evolution as a scientist. Having tested a cheaper method of next-generation sequencing developed by Gross, he has submitted a paper about that technology, along with Gross and Boulding, for journal publication.