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by Joel Cherry

Humanity’s troubled relationship with the natural world is increasingly evident. A University of Regina biologist has recently been granted $500,000 over five years to put a microscope to the issue.

Christopher Somers, an assistant professor of biology, now bears the impressive title of Tier II Canada Research Chair in Environmental and Wildlife Mutagenesis. He will be using the grant money to study how environmental contaminants affect the rates of heritable mutations in prairie wildlife.

Heritable mutations are important because they affect the sperm and egg cells and are transferred through generations. Somers said mutation rates of this sort could have been changed via direct exposure to harmful chemicals and other pollutants, or they could be affected simply through loss of habitat.

“So there’s two potentially major forces operating there and we don’t really know anything about either one,” Somers said.

Direct examination of mutation frequencies in families of organisms such as birds will be correlated with various environmental exposures. This information will be put to use in conservation efforts.

The research will be carried out in the field and in the laboratory, and funds will be directed towards both.

“We’ll be buying some field equipment, we’ll be buying a truck and a boat so we can go out and get samples,” said Somers, who will also be receiving radio telemetry equipment to track bird behaviour.

In addition to the Research Chair money, Somers will receive a $252,000 grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. A large portion of this money will go towards a new state-of-the-art genetics laboratory, to be opened in December 2009, and equipment such as a DNA sequencer.

The $900 million Canada Research Chairs program funds hundreds of such research projects nationwide, aiming to ensure Canada remains a leader in science. Pointing to mounting concerns about the environment, Somers emphasizes the importance of public funding.

“We can tell (the public) something about how environmental exposures can be affecting their health and also how it’s effecting the environment, which in turn affects the animals and the ecosystems around us,” he said.

There’s an additional benefit: the sentinels Somers studies can be a good marker for potential hazards to human health.

“When you’re out and about in Regina you can see gulls and pigeons pretty much everywhere that you go,” Somers said. “These animals share the environment with humans - we’re both living in the same place.”

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