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A peek inside Trent’s forensic wildlife DNA lab

Brad White’s forensic wildlife lab at Trent University sees its role as a defender of justice for wild animals.

By DAVID HAYES | APR 09 2014

On Friday, Oct. 21, 2011, three men went hunting in the woods near Kinmount, an hour north of Peterborough, Ontario. Kevin Chatterton, of Bowmanville, shot a calf moose and Robert MacFarlane, of Oshawa, bagged a cow moose. The third man, Shane Hannigan, who was visiting Ontario from Nova Scotia, was restricted to deer hunting since he carried with him only a deer licence for Ontario. After field-dressing the animals, the men loaded the meat into Mr. Chatterton’s ATV.

The next day, after receiving a tip from a neighbour, conservation officers from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources appeared at Mr. Chatterton’s home and observed the spoils of the trip. Both Mr. Chatterton and Mr. MacFarlane had licences to shoot calf moose only, which they insisted is what they had done. But, having determined where the men had been hunting, an MNR canine unit searched the area and found the kill sites. The ministry’s officers – who’d been trained at Trent University’s Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory – collected blood samples and ballistics evidence. On the strength of this, the officers were granted search warrants for both men’s homes. They confiscated tissue and blood samples from parts of the moose carcasses, a bag used to transport meat, and both clothing and firearms.

That’s when Bradley White, director of Trent’s DNA lab and chair of the university’s biology department, got involved. Dr. White and his team began the painstaking process of determining the genetic fingerprint of 25 samples collected for the case. In the end, thanks to DNA evidence supplied by the crime-busting team of scientists, the two hunters were charged with hunting and possessing a cow moose without a licence. Mr. Chatterton was fined $3,000 and had his moose-hunting licence suspended for two years; Mr. MacFarlane was fined $5,500 and had his licence suspended for four years. (The third man, Mr. Hannigan, pleaded guilty to unlawfully hunting deer using an illegally obtained Ontario licence.)

What the lab does

Based in the DNA building on Trent’s Peterborough campus, the lab and its primary partner, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, work with universities, research institutions, and government and non-government organizations around the world. The lab’s mission is to compile the kind of comprehensive genetic information needed for effective management and conservation of plant and animal species.

As one of the foremost wildlife forensic DNA labs in the world, Trent’s facility is a pioneer in this rare type of identification. A new project that the lab recently embarked upon involves compiling genetic information on Saanen dairy goats, whose high milk production and tendency towards multiple births could make them a solution to hunger and poverty in developing countries. On the forensic side, staff members have provided expert testimony or consulting services for more than a thousand cases involving animals as varied as wild turkeys, black bears, white-tailed deer and rainbow trout. It has played a role in cases involving criminals smuggling endangered species in or out of Canada (black bears are the biggest domestic target due to huge demand in South Korea, China and Japan for their paws, considered a delicacy, and gallbladders, used in medicines) and in determining whether the bone or hair used in jewellery came from an endangered species. Convictions have resulted in fines ranging from a few thousand dollars to $50,000, as well as prison terms.

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“We’re advocates acting on behalf of justice for wildlife,” says the 67-year-old Dr. White, a genial man with white hair, a neatly trimmed beard and a British accent. While he may not quite match the image of Gil Grissom, the gruff-but-principled supervisor for nine seasons on the original CSI television series, he’s an effective spokesperson for his chosen field. About the forensic cases, he says: “We’re not proving so-and-so did it. We say the probability of anyone else having done it is one in six billion or so.”

How Dr. White came to Trent

In 1967, armed with a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Nottingham, Dr. White noticed that McMaster University was advertising for graduate students in molecular biology; he emigrated to Canada, settling in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1970, just four years after scientists had cracked the genetic code, he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, where his research mentor, David Suzuki, drew him to genetics. He joined the faculty of the biology department at Queen’s University in 1973 and six years later spent a sabbatical year in the biochemistry department of Imperial College London, working on cloning technology. In the early ’80s he established – and ran for three years – a DNA diagnostic lab at Kingston General Hospital, the first of its kind in Ontario.

But part of Dr. White’s work involved breakthrough genetic research on red-winged blackbirds and snow geese – research that in some cases contradicted what behavioural biologists had believed for years. He had waded into the middle of a battle raging between behavioural biologists, with their emphasis on evolution and observation, and molecular biologists, who were using genetics to shed new light on previously accepted theories. “At that time, the two sides saw themselves as mutually exclusive,” says Dr. White. “We showed that they were totally synergistic, that biology was an integrated discipline.”

At Queen’s, Dr. White’s fledgling wildlife DNA laboratory was little more than an academic sideline; the staff consisted of him and a part-time assistant. But in 1990, he moved to McMaster as chair of biology. Not only was his alma mater close to his heart, but also it offered him the opportunity to expand the wildlife DNA lab. Soon, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ fish and wildlife division began using his services for poaching cases and for investigations into game being added to meat sold in supermarkets, which was against the law. One early case involving white-tailed deer illegally shot on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron proved a landmark: it was the first time DNA evidence involving a wildlife-related crime was accepted in a North American court.

When the MNR announced it was moving its headquarters from Toronto to Peterborough, Trent offered Dr. White the chance to relocate the laboratory and be closer to his major client. Although Trent is often identified by the public with the liberal arts, it’s the environmental and life sciences that dominate, especially in graduate studies. In 1998 Dr. White moved to Trent’s biology department. In 2001 he received a Canada Research Chair in Conservation Genetics and Biodiversity and formed the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre as a partnership between Trent and the Ontario ministry, attracting funding from the public and private sectors. He established an undergraduate forensic program, helped create a forensic biotechnologist program at nearby Fleming College, and launched a DNA forensics summer camp (nicknamed “CSI Peterborough”) where high school students can learn about DNA technology and forensic science. It all tied into an initiative called the Greater Peterborough Region DNA Cluster project, based on an understanding that in the future, DNA-related research and technology would transform the world.

“All of this was successful at attracting the best science students to Trent,” where biology is now the fourth largest department, says Dr. White. “It’s been a major factor in keeping undergrad [science] enrolment strong, even during difficult economic times.”

Today, the Wildlife Forensic DNA lab, along with some MNR operations, is housed in a large, seven-year-old research centre on a hill overlooking Trent’s campus. Investors included the federal, provincial and municipal governments and a variety of other agencies. Researchers from different disciplines study cancer, bio-archaeology and plant biology, among other things, although the main focus is wildlife DNA. A staff of 60 work in laboratories, offices and, behind double sets of locked doors, at a Level 3 biohazard facility. In the autopsy chamber, a steel hoist can lift a full-grown moose cadaver onto a stainless steel dissection table. Across the hall, robotic arms shuttle trays holding 96 vials at a time from one automated stage of DNA profiling to the next.

“It’s a showpiece,” says Neil Emery, Trent’s vice-president, research and international, who is also a professor in the biology department. “Our reputation is built on teaching, sure, but what the professors bring into the classroom draws from the world-class research they’re doing. And that research gives Trent a prestigious image, which potential donors catch onto.”

The goat DNA project

One example is the recent goat DNA project. When Dr. White met with local goat farmers, Lloyd and Barbara Wicks of Grasshill Farm Saanens, the Wicks explained that the adaptable small Saanen goats typically produce seven times the milk of other breeds and often have multiple births. Dr. White knew the lab could help identify genetic markers for milk production and reproduction through genomic testing, and after that, by practising selective breeding, embryos containing these desirable genes could be transferred to surrogate mother goats in developing countries. That development would both expand export opportunities for Ontario dairy farmers and improve the economic situation of poor rural villages abroad.

A private partner like Grasshill Farms can attract matching funding from governments as well as private agencies, and Dr. White secured multi-partner grants totalling $100,000 to conduct primary research. The lead funder is the Centre of Excellence in Goat Research and Innovation, an industry-led partnership of private and public entities. Other funders include the Canadian Livestock Genetics Association and a coalition of regional Saanen goat farmers.

“It’s hard to get government grants just on their own these days,” observes Dr. Emery. “It’s all about matching money, so you need to start with a partnership like the one Brad forged with Grasshill Farm Saanens.”

Projects like this are an opportunity for students, too. As a PhD candidate, Linda Rutledge worked on the eastern wolf, a previously unidentified species. Using DNA fingerprinting, she found strong evidence that it is in fact a distinct species, which led her to prepare a report for the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. She was continuing postdoctoral work on wolves and coyotes when her thesis adviser, Dr. White, asked her to join him on the Saanen goat project. She wasn’t sure it was the right move but then changed her mind.

“I think it’s an important venture from a pure research point of view,” she says, “but will also have practical outcomes from a social justice point of view, by alleviating poverty in developing countries.” Now, returning to her wolves and coyotes, she happily discusses the value of her experience at Trent, which she describes as having “all the intellectual resources of a much larger school in a more intimate setting.”

Dr. White has always promoted the importance of compiling data, and Dr. Rutledge says she benefited from that with the forensic centre’s wolf and coyote DNA bank, a genetic database covering the species in North America. But, it’s also Dr. White himself. “He scheduled weekly meetings with me and his door was always open, actually open,” she says. “This type of commitment makes it so much easier for a grad student because it makes you feel like your work is important and worthwhile, which is a big part of staying motivated.”

Today, the biggest project for Dr. White’s lab is cloaked in secrecy. It involves DNA testing of meat for a multi-million-dollar sting operation being conducted by two provincial police forces, the RCMP, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and U.S. authorities. The backbone of a successful prosecution, though, will be the forensic science conducted by Dr. White and his team to produce both scientifically defensible and legally permissible evidence that can withstand scrutiny in judicial proceedings.

“We’re involved in everything from crimes to diseases like rabies to research that will protect endangered species for future generations,” says Dr. White. “It all comes together here, because DNA is the first and most important information technology.”

Freelance writer David Hayes has won multiple awards for magazine writing. He teaches journalism at Ryerson University.

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