Genomics saves money, time and trees — and creates a new business

In the western part of the island of Newfoundland, the balsam fir sawfly has been a problem for decades. The ravenous sawfly larvae strip the needles from the trees, and while an attack rarely kills the tree, it can take 10 years or more for the tree to recover and start growing again.

Historically, sawfly infestations have run in cycles — its numbers would increase to epidemic proportions over a number of years before the population would collapse and the cycle started over.

In the early 1990s however, the sawfly population reached epidemic proportions and stayed there, year-after-year. Since the balsam fir is a major feedstock for the pulp and paper industry, the large and persistent infestation posed a significant threat to a forest industry that provides jobs for more than 5,500 people in the provinceFootnote 1.

Due to the risk to fish habitat and other wildlife, the use of chemical pesticides to attack the sawfly was unacceptable.

A better idea

Enter Dr. Chris Lucarotti, a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada's Canadian Forest Service (CFS). Dr. Lucarotti knew of a virus that could be used to destroy the sawfly larva, and bring the infestation under control.

This kind of so-called biocontrol has been effective against other damaging insects in Canada, most notably the use of the naturally occurring bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis to control outbreaks of spruce budworm.

"The difficulty," explains Dr. Lucarotti, "Is that it can take many years and many dollars to register a new product like this before it can be used. Understandably, you have to prove it is safe before you can apply it in the wild in any but the most tightly controlled experiments."

Genomics makes the difference

Dr. Lucarotti knew that a very similar virus to control the red-headed pine sawfly had been registered by the CFS some years earlier. "The thing about these viruses — they're known as baculoviruses — is that they are very host-specific," says Dr. Lucarotti. "In other words, they can only infect one species of insect, so you can target the insect you're after without damaging anything else."

With a virus very similar to the balsam sawfly already approved, along with timely funding from the Government of Canada's Genomics Research and Development Initiative (GRDI), Dr. Lucarotti and his team saw an opportunity to register the new virus years faster and at substantially less expense than would normally be possible.

"GRDI funding gave the CFS the ability to get the equipment needed to do some really meaningful genomics research, which included sequencing the genome of the virus approved for the red-headed pine sawfly," says Dr. Lucarotti. "We knew it was very similar to the balsam fir sawfly virus, and when we sequenced the genome of that virus in 2006, we saw that in fact, they were 75 percent the same."

With that information, Dr. Lucarotti and his team were able to register the virus without having to conduct lengthy and expensive tests to show the virus was not harmful to fish, birds or other wildlife — they could substitute the results of the same tests that had been done years earlier to prove the safety of the red-headed pine sawfly virus.

In record time

"We isolated the balsam fir sawfly virus in 1997 and we had conditional registration by 2006, allowing the province to apply it on a large scale," says Dr. Lucarotti. "It sounds like a long time, but in the world of registering pest-control agents like this, that's actually lightning-fast."

But does it work? "It works," says Dr. Lucarotti. "The virus infects the larvae with a sort of stomach 'flu, and as they shed the virus, it's picked up by other larvae. It also persists, so that when new larvae emerge in the following year, they get sick as well, so you don't have to use a lot to get a big result."

The benefits of the research led by Dr. Lucarotti extend well beyond the balsam forests of western Newfoundland. Once the virus was registered, the CFS licensed it to Forest Protection Limited (FPL) of New Brunswick for commercial use. FPL then joined BioAtlanTech to set up a new company to produce and market the virus under the trade name Abietiv.

Commercial success

At the new company, Sylvar Technologies, Research Director Dr. Renée Lapointe says that, "Without the work done by Dr. Lucarotti and his team, it is doubtful Sylvar Technologies would exist." Recognizing the value of its technology and research capabilities, Andermatt BioControl, a major biotechnology company based in Switzerland, acquired majority ownership of Sylvar in 2011.

Sylvar is currently working on registration of a virus for control of the cabbage looper, which attacks not only cabbage, but is also a major pest for tomato, potato and cucumber crops. "This is another baculovirus," says Dr. Lapointe, "So we're able to use the work Dr. Lucarotti did in sequencing the sawfly virus genome to accelerate the registration process for the cabbage looper virus. His research has had a significant impact."

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