Dealing with climate change

Helping the world adapt to climate change is the mission of a unique research facility at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. The Biotron, one of the most advanced of its kind in the world, is working to bridge research in environment, agriculture, medicine and engineering in order to respond to environmental change.

“We’re not here to mitigate climate change, we’re here to help adapt to it,” says Amar Singh, General Manager of the Biotron Institute for Experimental Climate Change Research, who spoke at the Eastern Canada Farm Writers annual meeting in Cambridge ON this week. “Adaptation is the necessary strategy if we’re going to deal with climate change.”

The institute’s sophisticated controlled environments allow researchers to look at things like the resilience of biological organisms to environmental stressed brought on by climate change or the impact of transgenic organisms on natural ecosystems. The Biotron is also able to look at ways to minimize the impacts of plant diseases and pest on agriculture and forestry and determine how to address the spread of insect-borne diseases like West Nile.

The Biotron houses several level two and three containment labs that can handle risky plant and animal pests, many of whom could potentially be used in bio-terrorism attacks. The building also features a series of large roof-top greenhouses called biomes that are completely sealed off from outside air, which allow for unique research opportunities.

“In our sealed biomes, we can introduce pollutants, insects or pathogens into a controlled environment to try to solve environmental problems,” says Singh, adding that the biomes are large enough to grow trees inside and can sustain an interior temperature of 30C when it is -20C outside. The pine beetle currently ravaging forests in British Columbia and expected to kill 80% of the province’s pine trees by 2014 is one issue the Biotron is currently working on. Singh says researchers at the Biotron hope to solve the pine beetle problem before it spreads further east by looking at new ways to naturally target the pest.

The building’s basement has an earth science climate chamber where researchers can take a soil core sample from anywhere in the world, preserve it and then regulate all the environmental parameters. Looking at what will happen to permafrost as it melts and how that can affect the biodiversity of the north, as well as the infrastructure and sustainability of northern communities and business interests is a major area of interest.

Singh added that the Biotron’s unique ability to look into the future may allow scientists to develop crops that are more resilient to things like drought or pests or develop medical bio-products like vaccines, antibodies and proteins to treat disease in humans.

The Biotron is hosted by the University of Western Ontario in partnership with the University of Guelph, and is attracting visiting researchers from around the world. Funding for the Biotron comes from a variety of sources, including the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Ontario Innovation Trust and Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.

ECFWA 2008 annual meeting photo gallery

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