The mountains, lakes, rivers and forests that we associate with Québec’s natural beauty are also an archipelago of sensitive ecosystems that require vigilance and protection.
Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths a year — three times more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, and thirteen times more than all forms of violence and war. Contamination of our natural ecosystems is considered one of the planet’s greatest threats.
A team of Canadian researchers is developing a toxicity testing tool that leverages genomic science to expedite and improve testing on thousands of chemicals that impact the health of ecosystems and the animals within them. Niladri Basu of McGill University, Markus Hecker of University of Saskatchewan, and Doug Crump of Environment and Climate Change Canada are leading the team that is testing, validating and commercializing EcoToxChip, a toxigenomics tool for chemical prioritization and environmental management that promises to revolutionize toxicity testing.
“It is widely accepted that toxicity testing is broken,” Niladri Basu explained. “Current testing schemes are expensive and time consuming, and they require that too many animals be used in the process.” Many businesses — including the mining, agricultural, chemical manufacturing and municipal sectors in addition to oil and gas companies — need to comply with regulations and, in Canada, spend $9 billion a year on environmental protection activities of which 69 per cent goes towards pollution control or prevention. “Genomics expands the biological space that can be covered, and thus allows scientists and regulators to better prioritize chemical pollutants based on their mode of action,” he added.
Indeed, the EcoToxChip, a laboratory PCR-based (polymerase chain reaction, which amplifies a small piece of DNA to produce thousands of copies) tool, can measure 384 key genes that represent the most important and relevant toxicological systems. The project also provides a user-friendly bioinformatics portal, EcoToxXplorer.ca, an intuitive data analysis and interpretation tool.
This genomics-enabled innovation can be used in the ecological risk assessment of chemicals in a range of contexts, from oil and chemical spills to everyday pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. Together, the EcoToxChip and EcoToxXplorer.ca have been designed to make chemical risk assessment more cost-effective, efficient, comprehensive and — by reducing the need for animal testing — more ethical.
The revolutionary aspects of the EcoToxChip are recognized in the institutional entrepreneurship component of the project, which is designed to make project team members more effective as change agents who transform institutionalized practices. “Institutional entrepreneurship is a critical piece of our work,” noted Prof. Basu. “The risk assessment of chemicals is a highly institutionalized field of practice in that the methods, routines, and tools used by risk assessors – and widely accepted by regulators and industry – are largely taken for granted. There is now a growing acceptance among governments and industry of moving toxicity testing away from whole animal tests and apical measures to one that harnesses recent advances in genomics and systems biology,” he said. We have the right technology at the right time, and the support to get the EcoToxChip and the EcoToxXplorer.ca into the hands of the most important end users, and to be sure that these are designed in the manner that these end users want and need.”
EcoToxChip is already of great interest to potential end users including Environment and Climate Change Canada, Shell, the environmental testing company AXYS and two international collaborators—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.