The largest DNA survey of fish ever attempted, a $9.1-million GEN-FISH project, was launched Monday in Windsor.
Think of it as a genetic criminal database, only for each of Canada’s more than 200 native fish species.
“This field is just exploding,” GEN-FISH co-lead Daniel Heath said of environmental or eDNA research. “Certainly to our knowledge nobody else is trying to develop eDNA markers for every fish species in the country.”
The collaborative research called GEN-FISH, Genomic Network for Fish Identification, Stress and Health, was launched at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) with scientists from across the country Monday.
Instead of catching fish to study them, this research to form a genetic encyclopedia of Canada’s fish will identify what species are in a lake or river just by testing water samples. Fish shed their DNA in the water.
It’s a big deal for the University of Windsor
“We’re going to sample 500 lakes and rivers across Canada. And some of them are going to be well understood like Lake Erie for example, and some that we have no idea what’s there,” said Heath who is a University of Windsor professor, former GLIER director and the operational director of GEN-FISH. “We’re going to figure out what fish species are in all of those lakes.”
University of Windsor president and vice-chancellor Robert Gordon called the launch a “truly momentous occasion.”
Freshwater fish are under threat, he said. Creating cost-effective testing will change how sport and commercial fisheries are managed in Canada and around the world, Gordon said.
“We believe the genomics-based approach employed by GEN-FISH network is really, really a game changer that will help establish Canada as a world leader in environmental DNA and eDNA research.”
The results could be used to see where invasive species are popping up, where species at risk are in trouble or making a comeback, and how the overall ecosystem is faring, he said.
“Canada is home to more than two million lakes and 8,500 rivers which cover nearly 10 per cent of Canada’s surface and support over 200 native, freshwater fish species,” Gordon said putting the huge effort into perspective.
GEN-FISH has 25 researchers from 13 Canadian universities including eight researchers from the University of Windsor. In Ontario, there’s also researchers from Guelph, Waterloo, Ottawa, Toronto and biology professor Bryan Neff from the University of Western Ontario in London.
Margaret Docker, a University of Manitoba professor who is one of three GEN-FISH leaders, said environmental DNA is like DNA used in forensics. An eyewitness used to be the gold standard in police investigations until DNA testing was so well-studied it was considered reliable.
“We’re at a stage in fisheries management where environmental DNA for fish identification has a lot of potential. And then our job is to develop the methods and test them so profoundly that users will have absolute confidence in their results,” Docker said.
The collaborative research will take five years and will prove it’s feasible to do on a large scale, Heath said.
It’s the first Genome Canada grant that GLIER and the University of Windsor has received. Only eight of about 80 projects received funding and Genome Canada is giving $4 million of the $9.1 million over five years with the rest coming from Genome Ontario, Genome Quebec, universities and industry, Heath said.
“It’s a big deal for the University of Windsor.”
Creating a reliable tool that can be used with water samples will speed up and reduce the cost of future research, help sport anglers know what fish are where in Canada, and help commercial fishery managers set more accurate quotas, Heath said.
The project will also create a tool to gauge fish health for more than 50 species by getting a little DNA from a fin of a fish that’s been caught without having to kill the fish to study it.