The University of Saskatchewan (USask) has been awarded $6.76 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to help conserve bison and other threatened animal species.

The announcement follows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement of more than $518 million to support the infrastructure needs of universities and research institutions across the country.

The wide-ranging research program, made possible through the CFI Innovation Fund, includes working with Indigenous communities to develop the world’s first bison genome biobank at the university’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE).

Dr. Baljit Singh, vice-president of research at USask, says this investment will place Canada on the global stage of animal conservation and production.

“Working with our partners in the livestock industry, Indigenous groups, and other leading academic institutions, this expert multidisciplinary team will apply genomics and other new technologies to the beef sector,” Singh says. “This will enhance production, livestock health, and food safety, as well as reduce greenhouse gases for a more sustainable future.”

Dr. Gregg Adams, a specialist in reproductive biology at USask’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) says after near extinction of bison 100 years ago, this is incredible news.

“Canada has led the way in bison conservation, but due to small genetically isolated herds and disease, bison remain at less than two per cent of their historic population,” Adams says. “Without conservation efforts, bison as a distinct species would cease to exist.”

Genome biobanks are used to store and redistribute genetic material to preserve genetic diversity. Adams and other researchers will use genomic tools to identify and restore the natural genetic composition and genetic diversity of Canada’s plains bison and wood bison populations, ensuring the species will survive for generations to come.

The work has the support of the Assembly of First Nations and other Indigenous groups.

The funding will also go towards addressing challenges facing the beef cattle industry, including antimicrobial resistance. A key benefit of this project to beef producers will be the development of new genomic tools to enable trait selection, enhance genetic diversity, and diagnosis of disease-causing microbes in herds.

To stay globally competitive, Canada’s cattle industry—which accounts for $18 billion of the country’s annual gross domestic product—must reduce its environmental impact and battle antimicrobial resistance, says Adams.

With the new funding, a cow-calf and bull handling facility will be built at the LFCE’s Goodale Research Farm, and will house the new genome biobank. The animal handling facilities at the LFCE’s Native Hoofstock Centre will be renovated and expanded, to enable safer and more efficient collection, cryopreservation, and transfer of genetic material among bison herds.

New equipment for high-performance computing and data handling, as well as for genetic sequencing, will be installed at an on-campus genomics lab for use by the WCVM and the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. A mobile lab will be purchased and outfitted for conducting time-sensitive testing of animals away from campus, such as bison herds or potential disease outbreaks on farms.

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