Skip to Content Skip to Main Menu

Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science News

Canada’s science minister announces recipients of Genome Canada awards, including U of T’s Nicholas Provart and Aaron Wheeler

Nicholas Provart and Aaron Wheeler headshots

Nicholas Provart, a professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology and Aaron Wheeler, a professor in the Department of Chemistry.

Two University of Toronto researchers in the Faculty of Arts & Science have been awarded funding from Genome Canada for helping generations yet to be born – in entirely different ways. The announcement was made Monday, February 4 by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport.

Nicholas Provart, a professor with the Department of Cell & Systems Biology, and his collaborators are helping biologists identify genes that will lead to the plants and crops needed to cope with climate change and the planet’s burgeoning population. Aaron Wheeler, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, is developing a safer, faster and more economical tool for prenatal diagnostics.

Winnowing a harvest of data

Feeding, sheltering and providing energy to the world’s population, expected to exceed nine billion by the year 2050, is one of the challenges facing plant biologists today. The challenge is made all the more daunting because the biological data they use is being generated at a prodigious rate by today’s advanced DNA sequencing and genomics technologies.

To help cope with this flood of data, Provart and his collaborators have developed an online tool, called ePlant. It lets plant biologists collect and view the complex data from crop plants in a way that helps them identify traits of interest. The tool is used to zero in on which genes are turned on in different parts of the plant, pinpoint where active proteins are located, and show how different enzymes interact within the plant.

Some of Provart’s collaborators are focusing on the traits that allow conifer trees like white spruce to grow under the drier, hotter conditions expected as a result of changing climate. ePlant visualization tools will help identify such tree varieties based on drone-captured performance data.

“I’m confident that having these tools available will accelerate the task of identifying useful genes,” says Provart, who co-leads the ePlant collaboration with Joerg Bohlmann from the University of British Columbia. The team also includes researchers from University of Toronto Mississauga, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the University of Saskatchewan, Guelph University and the Laurentian Forestry Centre.

Provart is receiving Genome Canada’s $1 million Bioinformatics and Computational Biology award. Of the funding he says, “This new grant will allow us to really push field-level data out to plant breeders, which I think is super-exciting.”

“Professor Provart is internationally recognized for developing bioinformatic platforms for analyzing and visualizing vast amounts of genomic data for researchers in plant science,” says Vince Tropepe, chair of the Department of Cell & Systems Biology. “And this new Genome Canada funded research has the potential to dramatically facilitate new discoveries. It’s really exciting and I think his approach will likely transcend disciplinary boundaries and be adopted by other fields.”

Transforming prenatal diagnosis

Wheeler was awarded $3 million in funding through Genome Canada’s Disruptive Innovation in Genomics Competition. The award will be used to develop an innovative, non-invasive prenatal diagnostic tool that is safer and less expensive compared to existing methods.

Current diagnostic approaches are invasive and can lead to miscarriage; as well, data analysis can take weeks to complete. Wheeler’s new method combines a safe way of isolating fetal cells, developed by collaborating physicians at the Sinai Health System, with the team’s lab-on-a-chip technology for a fast – within the first six weeks of pregnancy – and accurate detection of genetic abnormalities in the fetus.

“Approximately two to three per cent of all newborns today are born with a serious congenital anomaly,” says Wheeler. “There is clearly a need for safe, less invasive, and less expensive prenatal diagnostics which can provide genetic information at an earlier stage of pregnancy.”

With this new method there is the potential for a single-step diagnostic, that could eventually be offered to all pregnant couples and can be carried out by family physicians, obstetricians and gynecologists.

“This has the potential to transform the way prenatal diagnosis is delivered in Canada and around the world,” says Wheeler. “This is an exciting and meaningful project and I’m grateful to Genome Canada for its support.”

Driving innovation through genomics research

Provart and Wheeler were named alongside other recipients at U of T, including Shana Kelley, cross-appointed to the Department of Chemistry from the Faculties of Pharmacy, Medicine and Applied Science and Engineering, as well several research teams at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the Faculty of Medicine.

“Since taking office,” says Duncan, “our government has worked hard to return science and research to its rightful place. Genomics research is driving innovation across many sectors: including health, forestry, agriculture, fisheries, mining, energy and the environment. These exceptional projects we are investing in today encourage strong research partnerships and will help our economy and communities thrive.”

Genome Canada is a not-for-profit whose mission is to support the development and application of genomics and genomic-based technologies to create economic and social benefits for Canadians.

With files from the Departments of Cell & Systems Biology and Chemistry.