Meet Dr. Adam Warner, Raincoast’s new Conservation Genetics Scientist

Adam has joined our team to lead our new Conservation Genetics Lab.

Adam has joined our Cetacean Conservation Program to head up Raincoast’s new Conservation Genetics Lab. The lab is equipped with cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology that will be used to identify and address threats to cetacean,  salmon, and coastal carnivore species.

Adam has a BSc in Cell Biology and Genetics, a MSc in Genetics, and a PhD in Zoology, each from the University of British Columbia. After graduating, he spent five years at the University of Washington Genome Sciences department as a senior fellow while learning about new advances in DNA sequencing and genomic techniques. He then spent 3.5 years at OceanWise conducting genetics research on  killer whales and other cetaceans. 

We posed some questions to Adam to help you get to know him and give you a look at what he will be working on in the next few months.

Can you please share a bit about your background and how you got into this field?

I was fortunate enough to do my Bachelors degree in the Zoology department at UBC with a focus on cell biology and genetics. One of my favorite classes in my third year was an Advanced Genetics course with a focus on molecular biology techniques and I was hooked! I then did a Masters degree in Genetics and a PhD in Zoology under the guidance of a really amazing professor, Donald Moerman, and learned a lot about emerging technology. 

After that, I spent five years at the University of Washington in the lab of Bob Waterston who was a big part of the Human Genome Project. It was an amazing experience where I was exposed to a wide variety of projects and tools that ranged from medicine to conservation biology. It really opened my eyes to the power of genetics in terms of how it could help answer questions in areas other than health. When I had an opportunity to take a position using genetics to study whales and other marine mammals I was incredibly excited!

How can genome analysis contribute to conservation–now and in the future?

Often times, I think genomics has been overlooked as a key tool to help conservation research, but with costs lower than they’ve ever been, it has really opened up the doors for more labs to use DNA as a way to add more power to their studies. Right now, I think there are clear areas where genome analysis can contribute to conservation. 

One is using established techniques to study populations and learn about mating systems, genetic diversity, and learn about the past and current health of a population. There are things that we just can’t observe in nature such as the full scope of habitat range, mating, and all prey consumption, but DNA is very useful for helping with those questions. For example, in a fecal sample from a whale, we can figure out which whale the sample was from, what it has been eating, look at the gut health of the individual, and even see if there are signs that the whale has an infection. It’s exciting to get that much information from a sample collected in such a non-invasive way. 

In the future, I think this type of analysis is going to become more widespread and get even more sensitive so that we can glean even more information from non-invasive samples. For example, one of our current studies is to use fecal samples to determine not only the species of salmon that a killer whale has eaten, but the number of fish in that particular poop sample and the river or hatchery origin of each of those fish. As this type of sensitive analysis can be carried out and the prep work gets even more streamlined and accessible, I think you’ll see more labs incorporate DNA work to answer important questions.

What are you most looking forward to in your work with Raincoast? 

What I’m most excited about is really just learning more about all the awesome things that everyone is doing at Raincoast as well as what’s to come. I’ve already had some super interesting meetings where I’ve learned about some of the current and historic work looking at wolf populations, and the work that the Wild Salmon Program is doing to help salmon populations. There are also some exciting things that the Cetacean Conservation Research Program has planned, and the Healthy Waters initiative is getting off the ground and will be a very important resource for monitoring one of the most important resources we have – water. It’s amazing to be a part of an organization with such a diverse range of interesting and exciting things going on and I’m very lucky to be here!

Can you share your coolest insight about DNA?

I think one fascinating thing about DNA is just how much information is there beyond the base code sequence. I think most people are told that we have our DNA sequence when we are born and that it stays the same for our whole lives but that’s not entirely true. Individual bases (A, T, C, or G) can get modified over time with methyl groups or acetyl groups and that can lead to changes in how genes are used and downstream functions in the body. It’s a somewhat recent line of research, but in the conservation world, looking at those modifications might be able to help us learn more about the life history of an individual to see whether they were exposed to certain chemical contaminants in their habitat for example. 

On the more technical side, those modifications that are made to DNA and the differences between each base has in the past few years allowed companies to make DNA sequencers that measure the change in electrical charge as a DNA is passed through a tiny nanopore, and this can give us the DNA sequence along with any DNA modifications. It has allowed DNA sequencers to become as small as a chocolate bar, and inexpensive to add DNA sequencing to a laboratory or even a portable conservation lab. It’s the type of thing I’m sure I watched in movies when I was a kid or even in university and scoffed at thinking how ridiculous it was that in Star Trek they were just sequencing DNA on a tricorder, but we can basically do that now and cheaply too! 

It means you don’t need to be a large university or biotech company to be able to sequence DNA or even sequence a whole genome, you just need a passionate group of scientists and conservationists who want to help improve our world a little bit…and don’t mind collecting poop.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.