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Bioterrorism Preparedness Focus of New Forensics Research at Trent University


Dr. Barry Saville’s Plant Pathogen Study Receives $139,557 in New Funding from Canadian Foundation for Innovation

Thursday, November 15, 2007, Peterborough

New funding announced today from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to support forensic biologist Dr. Barry Saville’s research into plant pathogens at Trent University is part of a larger effort to protect society against the threat of bioterrorism.

CFI awarded a total of $139,557 to develop the necessary infrastructure and acquire new scientific instruments allowing Dr. Saville and his research team to develop hybridization platforms to identify strains of potentially dangerous plant pathogens. “The opportunity to do this work wouldn’t have existed anywhere else in Canada,” he said. “The ability to combine my knowledge of pathogens with existing forensic expertise and robotics analysis capabilities is only possible here at Trent.”

Dr. Saville studies genomics of the model fungal pathogen Ustilago maydis, also known as the corn smut fungus. The goal of his work is to determine the function of genes required for pathogenesis by this stealth pathogen of corn, and to determine how the expression of these genes is controlled. Ustilago maydis has been listed by a panel of experts headed by the director of the U.S.-based National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity, as a surrogate species for the assessment of current microbial forensics capabilities. Platforms developed and tested using this organism and others at Trent University will have application to pathogens that may be deliberately released.

“We need to have the ability to respond to the possibility of bioterrorist attack, and Canada does not currently have the scientific infrastructure in place to adequately do this,” explained Dr. Saville. “Today’s funding will enhance the DNA analysis capabilities at Trent enabling us to develop more efficient identification techniques and new ways of determining where the pathogenic strain came from and tracking it.”

Throughout history, plant pathogens have had devastating impacts around the world. The Irish potato famine from 1845 to 1851 caused by potato blight is one such example, resulting in the deaths of 1 million people and forced the emigration of 1.5 million others. Today’s monocultural farming practices, the ease of growing plant pathogens and the reality that crops are grown in unprotected areas are seen as primary risk factors that could facilitate a bioterrorist attack.

Dr. James Parker, associate vice president of research, welcomed today’s announcement. “CFI’s support recognizes how important the scientific research conducted at Trent is to society at both the local and global levels. We are very pleased to partner with them in a way that enriches the culture of innovation we have here at Trent.”

“We can say with conviction that Canada has become a place where world-class researchers want to be,” said Dr. Eliot Phillipson, president and CEO of CFI. “This CFI investment further develops Trent University’s global reputation as a place where outstanding research and training is being conducted.”

Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro expressed his congratulations from Ottawa. ““CFI’s strategic investment in Trent reinforces the University’s position as one of Canada’s leading centres for forensics research,” he said. “The opportunity to strengthen Canada’s bioterrorism preparedness through Dr. Saville’s groundbreaking research is of vital importance for all Canadians.”

In 2006, Trent University opened a new DNA Building, a $20 million facility dedicated to interdisciplinary teaching and research, especially in the discipline of DNA Forensics.

One of Canada's top universities, Trent University is renowned for striking a unique balance between outstanding teaching and leading-edge research. The University is consistently recognized nationally for faculty who maintain a high level of innovative research activity and a deep commitment to the individual student. Distinguished by excellence in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences and increasingly popular professional and graduate programs, Trent is dedicated to providing its students with an exceptional world view, producing graduates who are ready to succeed and make a difference in the world. Trent's Peterborough campus boasts award-winning architecture in a breathtaking natural setting on the banks of the Otonabee River. Together with its satellite campus in Oshawa, Trent draws excellent students from throughout the country and around the world.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation is an independent corporation created by the Government of Canada to fund research infrastructure. The CFI’s mandate is to strengthen the capacity of Canadian universities, colleges, research hospitals, and non-profile research institutions to carry out world-class research and technology development that benefits Canadians.


For further information, please contact Dr. Barry Saville, Department of Forensics, Trent University at (705) 748-1011, ext. 7260.