A collaborative research project titled ‘GENICE’ that partners the University of Manitoba and the University of Calgary were recently awarded $10.7 million as part of the Genome Canada Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition (LSARP).

The funds will be used to study the areas of genomics, petroleomics and sea-ice physics to investigate the potential for native microbial communities to mitigate oil spills.  The research teams are led by the University of Calgary’s Casey Hubert, associate professor in the Faculty of Science and Campus Alberta Innovation Program Chair in Geomicrobiology and University of Manitoba’s Research Professor Gary Stern, Centre for Earth Observation Science.

One of the key aspects of the research will be genomic experiments that will allow scientists to determine how naturally occurring microbes present in sea water and ice could potentially break down oil in the Arctic.

Genomics refers to the DNA found in every living organism.  DNA is the code that directs its biological functions and influences how it grows and interacts with the environment.  Genomics is the science of understanding, interpreting and harnessing this DNA code to create real-world solutions.

“The expertise that we bring to the table are in the areas of petroleomics and sea ice physics, and a new facility located in Churchill that will allow us to study oil degradation process under controlled ambient Arctic conditions,” said Professor Gary Stern.

“The idea is that we will be able to emulate different thermodynamic states of the sea-ice and how, under these conditions, different crude and fuel oils will interact with native microbial population in a controlled environment,” said Professor Stern.

“The addition of this research partnership between our two institutions will expand our respective teams and their capacity to advance our knowledge about impacts on the Arctic ecosystem and effects of the changing climate on all aspects of the North,” said Dr. Digvir Jayas, vice-president (research and international) and Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba.

One way of cleaning up spills right now includes the use of “dispersants,” a mix of chemicals that turn sheets of oil on surface waters into tiny droplets after a spill.  But apart from containing toxins of their own, dispersants are currently illegal to use in Canadian waters.  It also isn’t yet clear whether they would work the same in the Arctic as they do in warmer environments, which is something the researchers hope to find out.

The research comes at the critical time as the use of the Northeast Passage in the Arctic Ocean is increasing.  Scientists anticipate that the Arctic Ocean could be completely every summer in as little as 30 years.