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CFIA scientists seek the Barcode of Life

Three caricatures of scientists working with test tubes. There is a graphic of a DNA strain running through the centre of the image.

Deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly known as DNA, is what makes each person and species unique. It's that double helix that makes up your genes. It's why you resemble your parents, and it distinguishes you from everybody else.

Imagine a world where all living things could be identified through DNA extraction and sequencing.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), along with national and international partners, have been working on just such an initiative. It's called the Barcode of Life, and it's being led by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO). The Institute is part of the University of Guelph, the birthplace of the use of DNA barcodes.

Using a very short gene sequence, species can be identified in a similar way a barcode is used at your local grocery store. The mission of DNA barcoding is to ultimately catalogue every living species in the Barcode of Life Database.

In January 2016, Canada's Minister of Health announced the first federal government investment to support the Barcode of Life, with CFIA contributing $323,000 over 18 months to support scientific collaboration with Guelph's BIO. This partnership has continued, most recently with a two-year initiative completing in 2021 that sees CFIA working with BIO on a variety of projects. These projects include developing training modules for scientists on the applications of barcoding that can be used for a range of activities. For example, it can be used to identify insects that have been found in traps or to identify weed seeds that can be included in a seed repository to help recognise them if they appear again.

Access to the Barcode of Life can help verify any given species' DNA and can help CFIA enforce regulations. For example, the Agency could better detect food fraud by verifying the identity of fish and seafood for sale. When the label on the package says "cod," the fish inside should be cod.

Likewise, it can help identify invasive insects that can cause extensive – even catastrophic –damage to Canada's crops and forests. The problem is many pests – such as hungry bugs and the eggs they lay – can look alike. Right now, specimens are most commonly identified by looking at their shape, size and colour.

"A significant advantage of DNA barcoding over more traditional approaches of species identification is the ability to identify plant pests at different life stages," says Dr. Phil Macdonald, Director of the CFIA's Plant Health Science Directorate. "For example, in the past we would have to send an insect egg mass to an entomology lab and spend months growing it to a stage where the insect can be identified. DNA barcoding could reduce the time it takes to get a result by comparing the DNA of the species in question to the DNA of known species stored in the Barcode of Life database in order to look for a match."

"Invasive species are most commonly spread by the cross-border movement of products. However, using DNA barcoding can help set more efficient and reliable practices for scientists who then advise regulators on the type of invasive species. Once the regulator knows what they are dealing with, they can determine how to manage the species so there is less chance it can pose a risk," says Dr. Macdonald.

Former CFIA research scientist Dr. Delano James (who was one of the first to participate in the project) has been a strong advocate for the regulatory applications of DNA barcoding. "I think this is very powerful technology that could allow for the identification of a potentially harmful insect pest without needing a fully developed or intact specimen," he says.

Trade would also benefit. One common way that pests get introduced to new countries is through wood packaging moving across borders. It is important that the species of pest is quickly identified so that trading partners know exactly what they are dealing with and can more easily agree on how to deal with it. When there are delays or misidentification of an invasive species, it can cause issues between trading partners such as unnecessary trade restrictions or worse, the introduction of an undetected invasive species that can wreak havoc.

Employees across CFIA's laboratory network are working together to develop and test the technology. Projects such as the Genomics Research & Development Initiative, Quarantine and Invasive Species project, and the Genomic Applications Partnership Program have all contributed to improving existing methods and giving new capacity to identify species quickly.

Along with the BIO, CFIA employees have connected with federal partners such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Natural Resources Canada, as well as international players. The goal is to obtain as much data as possible from across the globe – with all partners working towards international integration and adoption of the Barcode of Life approach. CFIA has been active in helping develop international regulations and participated this past June in the regulatory session at the 8th International Barcode of Life conference in Trondheim, Norway.

CFIA is proud to be part of this leading-edge research and to be using barcoding as a regulatory tool. The work substantially reduces the risks to Canada's plant and animal resource base and benefits food regulation. CFIA believes that investments in this work will benefit all Canadians by ultimately reducing the cost of, and improving, plant and animal protection and food regulation.

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