Did you know that aliens are threatening our forests? If the latest science fiction movie comes to mind, think again!  Picture a natural disaster film instead.

A cargo ship sails into the Port of Vancouver from Asia. Its containers are unloaded and all seems to be running along smoothly. Yet in addition to its cargo, the vessel is carrying an unwelcome clandestine passenger that climbed aboard prior to departure. As the containers make their way to their respective destinations, so too this intruder heads from the Canadian coast toward our forests, spreading at an alarming rate and causing untold devastation.

What is wreaking such havoc? Alien species of insects! One well-known case involves the Dutch Elm disease spread to the American elm. The pathogen likely came from Asia carried by a vector insect, which spread the disease, causing the near total disappearance of the species from North America, its natural habitat. Other alien species, such as the emerald ash borer, are also making the news these days. They are causing irreversible damage to the environment and costing the Canadian economy hundreds of millions of dollars, affecting agriculture, forestry and international trade.

Elm bark beetle
Source: Natural Resources Canada
Emerald ash borer
Source: CFIA

So how can we detect these dangerous pests before it is too late?

Professors Roger C. Levesque of the Institute for Integrative Systems Biology at Université Laval and Richard Hamelin of the University of Brithish Columbia are part of the solution. In partnership with Michel Cusson of Natural Resources Canada and Cameron Duff of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA),  they are working on biosurveillance tools that can detect the DNA of harmful alien species. Biosurveillance is used to spot these species as soon as they arrive by ship at a Canadian port.

Early detection is an important part of Canada’s strategy on preventing the entry of alien species of insects into the country. One of the main challenges is the ability to accurately and rapidly identify samples collected by field agents. The insects are often at an early stage in their life cycle, making accurate identification difficult. With genomics, we can determine the regions of the genome of these pests and develop detection tools that will help identify both the species and its potential source. This information can then be used to determine where the insects likely came from and focus on the ships arriving from these parts of the world.

The DNA-based detection tools being developed by the multidisciplinary team will target two species: the Asian gypsy moth, an insect that feeds on a wide range of economically important tree species, and Phytophthora ramorum, a pathogen that attacks dozens of plants and trees, including oaks and larches. The tools will target unique DNA regions in the pests, improving the CFIA’s ability to better detect and identify the two species. Click here to learn more about this project.

Asian gypsy moth
Source: CFIA
Spruce budworm
Source: Natural Resources Canada

The research project is funded by Genome Canada and Génome Québec through the GAPP program. It will take approximately three years, after which CFIA laboratories will use the tools to enhance and complement their current practices.

The CFIA protects Canada’s forest and agriculture resources by intercepting alien forest pests and intervening before they establish themselves.

Listen to professor Roger C. Levesque as he discusses his research on another well-known pest present in Canadian forests, the spruce budworm.

For healthy forests