A team of molecular biologists from Toronoto’s Hospital for Sick Children chose their own unique way to mark the 150th anniversary of Canada – by sequencing the genome of the Canadian beaver.

canadian beaver genome

“The Canadian beaver had not been done, and we figured if anyone’s going to do the Canadian beaver, it should be Canadian scientists, so we exert our dominion over the animal that is out national icon,” said Stephen Scherer, director of the hospital’s Centre for Applied Genomics, who lead the project.

DNA for the sequence came from Ward, a 10-year-old male beaver resident at Toronto Zoo with its mate June. The researchers believe they are the first in the world to map and publish the Canadian beaver’s genome. Their results were reported Friday in the journal G3: Genes/Genomes/Genetics, which carries on its cover a photo of the first Canadian stamp to feature the enduring national symbol.

Beavers are an enduring symbol of Canada, a country founded on the fur trade and where beaver pelts were prized for their thick, warm fur. 

“The Canadian settlers at the time, the Hudson’s Bay Company, their decisions of how they migrated across the country and why they stayed in Canada was driven by the fact that the beaver pelt trade was so lucrative,” Scherer said.

While sequencing a beaver genome as a 150th birthday present is delightfully whimsical, the project did have a more serious goal in mind. Sherer’s research team used the beaver genome to test new approached to genome assembly and mapping, ahead of a test in human DNA. 

“We actually don’t know what the beaver genome looks like, so we had to assemble it without knowing what the final picture of the jigsaw puzzle is,” explained Si Lok, senior project manager at the centre and a co-author of the beaver genome paper. “If we can do this, we can use the same technology and the same approach to identify new mutations in a human genome that we currently are missing.”

“There’s a lot of genetic variants that are missed (with the standard technology) because we’re comparing to what we already know about the human genome,” Scherer added.

“We could have done this first on a human genome, but we thought we would check two boxes and as good Canadians sequence something new and give it as a gift for the Canadian sesquicentennial.”