New genetics lab will help conservation efforts by tackling difficult questions with DNA

Raincoast Conservation Foundation has just launched their lab at the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre.

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

Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s new Conservation Genetics Lab will provide scientists with valuable insights into the population structure, health, diets, and resilience of coastal species such as endangered Southern Resident killer whales. 

Raincoast scientists with over 54 years of combined experience in cetacean research have launched the new lab at the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre – a world-class, innovative research hub home to Fisheries and Oceans Canada and partner organizations. The lab will use cutting edge science to provide scientists with reliable insights into habitat use, feeding ecology, biodiversity, health, and resilience of coastal species. 

In a time where many coastal species are in peril, and human activities are continuing to degrade their chances of survival, this lab will help to deliver insight into factors affecting the health of these populations and their habitats.

Raincoast’s research scientists have already collaborated with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to sequence the entire genomes of 142 Northern Resident killer whales, providing information on levels of inbreeding, genetic diversity, immune system strength, and population structure.  

They now are comparing this dataset to one for Southern Residents compiled by NOAA in the United States. The NOAA study demonstrated a link between high levels of inbreeding and reduced longevity in the endangered Southern Resident population. We are also completing a comprehensive, long-term study of inbreeding and mating patterns in the marine mammal-eating Bigg’s killer whale population, which shares the range of both the Southern and Northern Residents. In combination, these studies will help scientists and conservation managers understand why the Southern Resident population is declining, while Biggs and Northern Resident populations are increasing. 

Researchers in the Conservation Genetics Lab will also conduct studies using environmental DNA, often referred to as eDNA.  eDNA is derived from skin cells, mucus, feces and other organic material shed naturally by organisms. Its analysis can  provide insights into the range and types of species using a particular habitat including species that are rare or otherwise difficult to detect.  It can also be used as a non-invasive way to obtain DNA from individual animals to determine their identity, their population of origin, their relatedness to other individuals,  or to gain other insights.  To date, we have used eDNA collected near humpback and killer whales to determine their sex and to match feces–from which stress and other hormones can be measured–to specific individuals.