Can we avert planetary mass extinction? Can we establish a global system to survey life on our planet?

Helping to answer these and other large-scale questions about life on Earth is the goal of BIOSCAN, a University of Guelph-led global biodiversity project awarded $24 million in federal funding this month.

Prof. Paul Hebert
Dr. Paul Hebert, director of U of G’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) and leader of the BIOSCAN project

Led by Dr. Paul Hebert, a professor in the College of Biological Science and director of U of G’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG), a worldwide, interdisciplinary research team will use the award to advance this ambitious eight-year project begun in 2019. BIOSCAN will inventory multicellular species, probe their interactions and dynamics, and enable researchers to help protect natural resources, ecosystems and human health.

BIOSCAN is among seven initiatives nationwide – including only two science projects – to receive awards under the Transformation 2020 (T2020) competition run by the Canada Research Coordinating Committee.

Announced Jan. 12 by François-Philippe Champagne, federal minister of innovation, science and industry, this program supports large-scale, Canadian-led research projects that address a major challenge and promise real, lasting change.

The support comes from the New Frontiers in Research Fund, a joint initiative of all three major federal granting agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

“With this grant, Canada’s capacity to lead BIOSCAN will be sustained,” said Hebert, holder of a Canada Research Chair in U of G’s Department of Integrative Biology and principal investigator of the $180-million, eight-year project.

BIOSCAN’s mission lies in species protection

American evolutionary ecologist and conservationist Dan Janzen collecting specimens for a BIOSCAN project in Costa Rica

“This federal support further strengthens the University of Guelph’s leading role in understanding and protecting life on Earth,” said Dr. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research). “This funding will indeed be transformational, enabling U of G researchers and their collaborators worldwide to preserve biodiversity and improve human, animal and ecosystem health around the planet.”

Among more than 75 team members at research institutions in Canada and abroad, co-principal investigators include integrative biology professor Dr. Mehrdad Hajibabaei, a metabarcoding expert with the CBG, and Dr. Graham Taylor, a machine learning and artificial intelligence specialist in U of G’s School of Engineering.

Photo a huge piece of equipment with eight large green trays of water samples
CBG’s Biomek FX liquid handling robot, which automates DNA sample transport, mixing, manipulation and incubation (Photo by Evgeny Zakharov)

Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield said, “The Government of Canada is proud to support this next phase of biodiversity research at the University of Guelph, as Guelph leads the way in global understanding of biodiversity loss, as well as interactions between species. BIOSCAN will help us to understand how to protect all species from existential threats such as pandemics, building on Guelph’s One Health approach to improving life.”

Calling the T2020 award “catalytic,” Hebert said it will stimulate funding from other agencies and partners for the project, intended to compile a DNA reference library of multicellular life, with a focus on species discovery in developing countries.

Through BIOSCAN, researchers expect to influence regulatory policies and practices worldwide to mitigate these losses.

Samples collected as part of the BIOSCAN project in Ghana

Among various biodiversity projects worldwide, CBG researchers are working with colleagues in Costa Rica to examine potential advantages of organic pineapple farming on beneficial insects and birds that consume them. In a collaboration with researchers in Ghana, metabarcoding is being used to map food webs involving insects and their predators to help control malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Here in Canada, researchers are working with McCain Foods to develop farming practices that promote soil biodiversity while increasing crop yield. They are also barcoding Arctic species to help monitor biodiversity in the North.

Tracking biodiversity might even help to avert future pandemics, said Hebert. The devastating impact of COVID-19 makes clear the need for a “pandemic interception system,” he said.

Metabarcoding being used to map food webs

Several people kneel while looking at samples, surrounded by bags of sample bottles and other equipment
BIOSCAN research in Nunavut (Photo by Danielle Nowosad)

“Using the power of DNA sequencing, we can register not only the diversity of multicellular life but also the diversity of organisms associated with them.”

He said that’s important as other species harbour pathogens that can create health risks, especially as humans encroach on natural habitats.

Hebert said the core mission of BIOSCAN lies with protecting the millions of species that share our planet. “It’s the only way that humanity will achieve the UN’s goal of living in harmony with nature by mid-century.”

More information on this research investment will be shared at a local announcement to be held virtually in the coming weeks.

Also announced was $1.9 million in funding for two new Canada Research Chairs at U of G. Tier 1 funding worth $1.4 million over seven years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be awarded to Dr. Carla Rice, College of Social and Applied Human Sciences. Dr. Jesse Popp, Ontario Agricultural College, will receive Tier 2 funding worth $500,000 for five years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.


Hannah James