North American Bison Population To Receive Help from Genome Biobank

by Jon D. B.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation has awarded a staggering $6.76 million to the University of Saskatchewan in order to help conserve the North American Bison through genetics.

In a wide-reaching research program made possible through CFI Innovation, the University of Saskatchewan will develop the world’s first bison genome biobank. Using their Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE), the university aims to place itself at the forefront of bison conservation in North America.

The species needs all the help it can get, too. Once roaming the entire continent by the millions, the North American woods and plains bison species now exist at less than 2% of their original numbers.

“Working with our partners in the livestock industry, Indigenous groups and other leading academic institutions, we will place Canada on the global stage of animal conservation and production,” News-Optimist quotes of USask Vice-President Research Dr. Baljit Singh.

As for the production piece of this puzzle, the university’s “expert multidisciplinary team” will also apply “genomics and other new technologies to the beef sector to enhance production, livestock health, and food safety… As well as reduce greenhouse gases for a more sustainable future,” Singh continues.

What is a Genome Biobank to Bison and Beyond?

To put it simply, genome biobanks are a way to store – then distribute – genetic material. By doing this, scientists across several fields can promote and preserve the genetic diversity of a species.

Without this tech, the North American bison may go extinct regardless of conservation efforts. Only the bison of Yellowstone National Park holds the pure genes of their free-roaming ancestors. All others in North America have domestic cattle genes in their DNA. This, combined with the limited genetic diversity their near-extinction caused, could send the species to their doom. If not for programs like this and donors like CFI Innovation, that is.

“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,” News-Optimist states. “The work has the support of the Assembly of First Nations and other Indigenous groups.”

In addition, Canada’s federal government is pledging more than $518 million to “support the infrastructure needs of universities… And research institutions across the country” in their conservation efforts.

 “After the near extinction of bison 100 years ago, 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,” cites the project’s team leader, Gregg Adams. “Without conservation efforts, bison as a distinct species would cease to exist,” he adds. Adams is a specialist in reproductive biology at USask’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

Benefits for Conservation and Cattle Industry

For Adams and his colleagues, a “genome biobank provides one of the best opportunities to revitalize the bison species”. Moreover, it will “serve as an excellent model that can be applied to other threatened Canadian species, such as caribou.”

“This work will lead to innovations that benefit a host of individuals and organizations,” he adds. These include the aforementioned livestock producers, alongside veterinarians.

The program’s benefit for Canada’s cattle industry also provides a much-needed ally in securing funding. The country’s industry accounts for $18 billion of Canada’s annual gross domestic product, News-Optimist states.

Adams believes their research can benefit both conservation and help the cattle industry reduce their devastating carbon footprint.

“The cattle industry is under a lot of pressure to be more sustainable and eco-friendly. And we hope to be part of the solution,” he offers.

In addition, Adams states the program will also help train the “next generation of wildlife techs and officials.” From budding veterinarians and biologists to researchers with gene-based skillsets, Adams is indeed hopeful for the future of both Canada and the North American bison.