The search for environmentally safe solutions to control damaging insect pests could establish Sault Ste. Marie as a global leader in genomics-driven forest management products.
One of the scientists leading the way will be Dr. Basil Arif, a molecular virologist at the Great Lakes Forestry Centre, a world-renowned institute for bug biology.
Gone are the days of the Agent Orange-like dumps of toxic chemicals fighting forest pests. These days, pest management strategies are green.
In the north, forestry industry research has great potential to be commercialized and create entrepreneurs for a regional biopesticide industry.
“That is the best thing that could happen,” says Arif, one of the world’s authorities in insect genomics in the emerging field of pest management biotechnology. “Not only is it of socio-economic benefit to Canada, it starts here in Sault Ste. Marie.”
A federal research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service for 32 years, Arif started a genomics project three years ago to produce an environmentally safe viral control agent to fight insect pests, buoyed by a $4.6-million Genome Canada grant.
Squarely in his sights is the Spruce Budworm, considered one of the forestry industry’s most destructive pests.
“It devastates more forests in Ontario than all the forest fires in Canada,” says Arif.
With chemical sprays banned, the research emphasis is on developing more environmentally benign control agents using naturally-occurring viruses and bacteria which have a proven safety record in targeting specific insects.
But over millions of years of evolution, these viruses become less virulent, existing in a more harmonious relationship with their insect hosts.
“We need to modify the virus to make it a more effective agent targeting the pest in an environmentally safe manner,” says Arif.
It will require extensive study at the genomic and proteomic (study of proteins) level between the spruce budworm, its viral parasites and plants it feeds on.
Arif says there are many advanced projects in the world, specifically China, where genetic engineering in manufacturing viruses is used in forestry and agriculture as biological control agents.
But genetic engineering is only one aspect of his work in developing natural pesticides that target specific insects without harming other mammals, fish and birds.
Over the past two years, Arif and his team have identified, and are gaining a better understanding of, two insect viruses called Baculo and Entomopox viruses.
“We’ve made good progress in understanding the genomics of these viruses and now we are moving one stage further,” says Arif.
The centre’s biggest recruiting catch to date is Dr. Jenny Cory from the United Kingdom’s Oxford University, the world’s authority on molecular biology. Together with Arif, she is heading up an international team of scientists from Queen’s University, the University of Guelph, Laval University, the Chinese Academy of Science, Inra, France’s institute of agronomy research, Germany’s Institute of Plant Protection and London’s Imperial College.
Arif says the Sault’s stellar track record in developing biological control agents is known throughout the world and is a great incentive to job-searching top-notch research talent.
“We could not have secured the collaboration and services from people all over the world had we not the track record to prove that we can deliver what we say.
“What excites me is that we can leverage all these resources to work on Canadian Forest Service and Natural Resources Canada priorities. For me, this is wonderful."