Gene study searches for links between salmon and humans

Nov 03, 2005, vol. 34, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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What do salmon and humans have in common? Enough that Genome Canada is paying for half of a $15.3 million project linking salmon to humans. Scientists will use knowledge gained about salmonid genomics to better understand the impact of genome duplication on vertebrate evolution and human hereditary disorders. Duplicate genomes are back up chromosomal pairs.

It would be hard to find anyone more excited about this international project - the Consortium for Genomics Research on All Salmonids Project (cGRASP) - than Willie Davidson. The Simon Fraser University professor of molecular biology and biochemistry is one of its three co-leaders.

Davidson has long been devoted to understanding how environmental changes and pathogens impact not just individual genes, but whole genomes. Previous research on fish has shown that duplicate genomes often mutate in response to pathogens and environmental factors and these mutated genomes drive the evolution of new species.

“Did the ancestral species of salmonids get rid of some duplicate genes or use a duplicate copy to start new functions in response to environmental changes or diseases? Did extra or mutated chromosomes result in the death of a species?” ponders Davidson. “Answers to these kinds of questions could help geneticists better understand the link between gene duplication and loss and human diseases stemming from genomic rather than genetic effects. We know that an extra chromosome causes Down syndrome, and suspect that segmental duplications are quite commonly associated with human disorders.”

Several multi-million dollar industries connected to salmon fishing and rearing and salmon conservation groups will benefit from this project. Davidson and cGRASP co-leaders at the University of Victoria and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences will build on the world's first map of the Atlantic salmon's genome, which they created in an earlier project.

This project will investigate the genomes of several salmonids, including Pacific salmon, trout and smelt. Davidson and his colleagues will use technology, the world's largest salmon gene chip which they developed, to study Atlantic salmon and to identify salmonid genes that regulate the immune system and control growth and development.

The chip allows scientists to study 16,000 genes simultaneously to determine their function and sensitivity to disease and environmental conditions over time. “With this kind of information,” predicts Davidson, “we'll be able to identify the adaptive characteristics that will improve salmonid survival whether they're swimming in an aquaculture pen, in the open ocean or in fresh water.”

Along with Genome Canada, Genome B.C., several federal government departments, Canadian and European universities and the U.S. government's department of agriculture are investing in this project. Genome Canada is the country's premier, federally funded agency for promoting genomic research.

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