Since I started working as a geneticist in the early 1960s, the field has changed considerably. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Researchers then "cracked" the genetic code, which held promise for fields like health and medicine. It was an exciting time to be working in the lab.
More than 40 years later, in 2003, an international group of scientists sequenced the entire human genetic code. Researchers can now find a gene suspected to cause a disease in a matter of days, a process that took years before the Human Genome Project. As of 2013, more than 2,000 genetic tests were available for human conditions. Forty years ago, I never dreamed scientists would have the knowledge and manipulative capabilities that have become standard practice today.
In a couple of decades, genetics has allowed for systematic inventorying of the world's biodiversity. Canada's Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph has the genomes of more than 265,000 named species identified with barcodes in its database. The cost to analyze a sample against this free public database is about $10. Cost reductions and digital communication allow citizen scientists to utilize an enormous storehouse of information.
Young citizen scientists in San Diego were recently able to help compile information about the area's biodiversity through their local libraries. Kids signed out genetic testing kits — which included sampling vials, tweezers and a return bag — through Catalog of Life @ the Library. They then uploaded photos and locations of their finds using a LifeScanner app or website. It's part of an effort to collect 4,000 samples of local bug life. After returning kits to the library, the young scientists could go online to see and compare the genetic barcodes of their discoveries.
According to the library, "Only an estimated 20 per cent of species on earth have been identified by their DNA barcode." The San Diego program is part of Barcode of Life, which has the ambitious goal of identifying all life on Earth to help researchers "understand the diversity of species, monitor the health of the environment and the impacts of climate change." Canada's Centre for Biodiversity Genomics is doing the genetic sequencing.
People in Canada can also help identify seafood fraud with the LifeScanner service. Genetic testing helps consumers identify the species and possibly origin of fish they buy — important for people who care about sustainability and health and nutrition.
Identifying and tracing seafood has long been a challenge, especially because about 40 per cent of wild-caught seafood is traded internationally — and labelling is often inadequate. Once fish are skinned, cleaned and packaged, it's not always easy to tell what they are. If you buy something labelled "rockfish" in Canada, it could be one of more than 100 species. Often, labels don't indicate whether the fish were caught or processed sustainably. Although the European Union and U.S. require more information on seafood labels than Canada, one study found 41 per cent of U.S. seafood is mislabelled.
A European study found stronger policies combined with public information led to less mislabelling. People in Canada have demanded better legislation to trace seafood products. More than 12,000 people recently sent letters to government asking for better labelling.
SeaChoice (the David Suzuki Foundation is a member) is working with LifeScanner to register 300 people in Canada to test seafood, in part to determine whether labels are accurate. Participants will get testing kits, buy seafood, collect data and images and return samples in a provided envelope. Samples will be analyzed and coded, with results posted online.
With the help of citizen scientists, genetic testing can offer a powerful approach to righting environmental wrongs. Combining crowd-sourced scientific data, public policy reform and consumer activism is already showing positive results. The same approach could work in areas such as testing for antibiotics, pesticide and mercury residues and more.
DNA Day is celebrated in Canada on April 21 and the U.S. on April 25, to commemorate completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and discovery of DNA's double helix in 1953. We've come a long way since then, but we still have much to learn. Citizen scientists are helping!
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.