McGill researchers lead development of tool to assess environmental risks of chemicals

$9.6M project funded through Genome Canada competition for natural resource, environment sectors
Published: 8 December 2016

Assessing the risks that toxic chemicals pose to natural ecosystems is a huge challenge, given the thousands of chemicals that require testing. But the task is expected soon to become less daunting, thanks to a new tool being developed by McGill University researchers. 

An interdisciplinary McGill team led by Prof. Nil Basu of the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition  in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan and Environment and Climate Change Canada as well as a series of industrial partners, is working on a genomics-based tool for assessing the effects of chemicals on a range of fish, birds and amphibians. A major strength of the team, which includes Prof. Jessica Head and Prof. Gordon Hickey (also from Natural Resource Sciences), Prof. Jianguo Xia (Animal Science/Institute of Parasitology), and Prof. Steve Maguire (Desautels Faculty of Management), is its diversity and breadth of expertise.

The $9.6 million initiative is one of 13 applied research projects selected to receive funding from Genome Canada and partners to address challenges in Canada’s natural resources and environment sectors, Canadian Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan announced Dec. 8 in Montreal. The regional agencies Génome Québec and Genome Prairie are also providing funding for the McGill-led project.

The project is being driven by the needs of national and international regulators.  The new testing tool, known as EcoToxChip, should also prove valuable to companies in the resource extraction and chemical manufacturing industries in completing environmental assessments that are required by law or their own internal policies, the researchers say.

“Current strategies for assessing the risks from chemicals rely heavily on animal testing and are prohibitively time-consuming and expensive,” Prof. Basu explains. “Our tool is one desperately sought by government regulators and industry partners, as it is expected to result in tremendous cost-savings in terms of dollars, animal lives, and time.”

 “Chemical contamination threatens our planet’s health,” said Suzanne Fortier, McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “Thanks to the vision and support of Genome Canada and Génome Québec, the genomics-based assessment tool developed by McGill researchers will give us an accessible, affordable, and reliable means to fulfill our crucial role as stewards of our ecosystems—and of our future.”

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