Plants with (and without) borders

Dr. Karen Samis thinks a lot about borders. Specifically, the borders that define the geographical range of plants.

“Each plant has an area where it grows, and an area where it does not. But what stops the plant from going further into new territory?” she asks. “My cousin once joked it was a lack of public transportation.”

“And while that’s funny, it’s partially correct!” says Samis. “Part of what a plant needs in order to extend its range is seed distribution. But getting there is only half the battle. A seed must be able to grow, find a mate, and survive to make more seeds. We want to understand why a population of plants can live next door to some nice habitat, but never live there.”

Samis is an Assistant Professor of Biology at UPEI. She’s been awarded an NSERC Discovery Grant to explore how the genetics of a plant mixes with its environment to determine the edge of its geographic range.

“I’m studying Cakile edentula, better known as sea rocket,” says Samis. “It’s a common coastal plant native to eastern North America, and is found on beaches from Newfoundland to Florida. It also has these fabulous little fruits that are shaped like rockets and that travel easily by water, hence the name. The seeds should have no problem getting from beach to beach.”

Cakile edentula (Sea rocket): Photo: K. SamisCakile edentula (Sea rocket): Photo: K. Samis

Samis says coastal plants are particularly interesting because the width of the range may be just a few dozen meters across, but the length can be hundreds or thousands of kilometres long.

“The width is determined by a couple of clearly defined borders – the ocean on one side, and the end of the beach on the other,” says Samis. “Length can be defined by a number of variables. Climate is clearly important at long distances.”

Samis’ five-year research program will start with questions about the behaviour and characteristics of populations of sea rockets from different climate zones along the east coast.

“And those questions will range from ‘how early in the year does the plant flower?’ to ‘what is the pattern of genetic variation from population to population?’”

Sea rocket is a convenient plant to study, explains Samis, because it falls in a family of plants that scientists understand pretty well. It’s related to broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and a less tasty plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana.

Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress): Photo: K. SamisArabidopsis thaliana (thale cress): Photo: K. Samis

“Arabidopsis thaliana is the first plant to have its genome sequenced,” says Samis. “We also know which genes are involved in seed germination, flowering, growth, and lots of other processes. Because sea rocket is a related species, we can carry some of that information over.”

Samis’ project will eventually examine the genetics of sea rockets from different parts of the range including its introduced range in western North America, to try and understand just what creates the border of the geographic range.

“We expect that because the plant doesn’t grow north of Newfoundland, that it simply can’t. But how much of that is due to climate or genetics?” asks Samis. “Plants are pretty good at defying our expectations. I expect to find answers we could have never predicted.” 

Unlocking the crystal ball inside your computer

Dr. Jason Pearson is not what you think. Yes, he is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at UPEI, but if that title conjures images in your mind of lab coats, test tubes, and Bunsen burners, think again.

 Pearson is a computational chemist, which means he uses advanced computers to simulate chemical reactions. He recently spoke at the May 26 Research Breakfast at the Rodd Charlottetown. His title: Unlocking the crystal ball inside your computer.



Dr. Ian Dowbiggin, Professor of History at UPEI, also spoke at the same event. You’ll find the video to his talk in this past ORD Blog post.

Photo credit

Solving a fishy mystery

 “Something started killing farmed Atlantic salmon in Chile in about 2007,” says Dr. Fred Kibenge, Professor of Virology at UPEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College. “And it was thought to be a bacterial disease, so they treated with antibiotics. But the fish kept dying.”

Until this point, Chile was the number two producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in the world, and well on track to becoming number one.

“We tested samples for a disease known as infectious salmon anaemia, or ISA, and it was confirmed,” says Kibenge. “The effect has been terrible. Production in Chile is now barely 30 per cent of what it was just three years ago.”

Dr. Fred Kibenge: Photo from Fish Information & Services (click for article)Dr. Fred Kibenge: Photo from Fish Information & Services (click for article)

Kibenge’s findings, and how he came to them, read like a script for the television program C.S.I. But instead of finding a murderer, he’s tracked the route of a virus that jumped an ocean to decimate the Chilean aquaculture industry.

ISA virus is a blood-borne virus in salmon that literally bleeds the fish to death. The disease was first reported in 1984 in salmon farms in Norway. More than a decade later, it was confirmed in farms in the Bay of Fundy off New Brunswick.

“But while the diseases were similar, the viruses were genetically distinct,” says Kibenge, “which means the disease wasn’t spread from one place to another. These two viruses evolved separately, literally, an ocean apart.”

Kibenge’s lab quickly developed expertise in ISA, and in May of 2004 was named an official reference lab by the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE.

“There are reference labs all over the world with specialties in different diseases,” says Kibenge. “For example, if a country suspects it has cases of avian influenza, it must seek confirmation from a specific OIE laboratory. We are one of two labs for ISA—the first being a government lab in Norway.”

Kibenge’s confirmation of ISA in Chile created a few more questions: Where did it come from? How did it get there? And, when did it happen?

“I had been working with Dr. Yingwei Wang in the Computer Science department of UPEI since 2006,” says Kibenge. “We developed a computer program that compared genetic sequences of different samples of the virus with startling results.”

The program, called BACKTRACK, was able to confirm the ISA virus in Chile came from Norway. The samples taken in Chile in 2007 were most similar to samples taken in Norway in 1996.

“Which was surprising, because the virus didn’t become a problem for more than a decade,” says Kibenge. “But BACKTRACK was also able to show the ISA virus in Chile underwent a mutation in 2005. It wasn’t until that point that it was able to spread to Chile’s salmon farms.”

The OIE recently awarded a contract to Kibenge’s lab to help train a Chilean lab at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. Over the next two years, a team from AVC will travel twice to Chile to help bring the lab’s protocols and practices up to date. Representatives from Chile will also visit AVC.

“The hope is these exchanges will prepare the Chilean lab to become an OIE reference lab for Latin America,” says Kibenge.

The first AVC workshop in Chile will be this coming October. Check back with the ORD Blog for updates on this story.

Top photo: Electron micrograph of infectious salmon anaemia virus particles in cell culture.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

Hard to pronounce, but even harder to live up to: Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or I.Q., is the concept of Inuit traditional knowledge. As the territory of Nunavut tries to use I.Q. to guide itself in areas of public policy, UPEI is working with an award-winning filmmaker to track I.Q. among its next generation of leaders. 

Dr. Fiona Walton, associate professor of Education at UPEI, is teaming up with Gemini Award-winning filmmaker Mark Sandiford. This is their second project together, the first being Sandiford’s film “Lighting the Qulliq: The First Master of Education Program for Nunavut”.  

Walton was one of the driving forces behind UPEI’s Master of Education program that
graduated its first class on Canada Day, 2009. She was impressed by the film’s ability to convey the story behind the program. 

“We also wrote a 130-page report on the program, full of transcription and analysis,” says Walton. “But it’s not visually dynamic. Frankly, to most people, it may be boring. Who is going to read it through? Mark’s film conveys much of the same information, but it delivers an emotional message you can’t get from an academic report.” 

The new documentary will look at two high schools on Baffin Island as case studies—Clyde River, and Pangnirtung. Both schools are led by graduates of the MEd program. 

“We want to explore the use of I.Q. within their leadership, and the impact it has on students,” says Walton. “We’ll be following students in Grade 11 and 12. Not just their lives at school, but their interaction with their parents, community, and elders.”  

“There is a trade-off in using film as a dissemination tool, rather than a paper,” explains Sandiford. “Film is less defensible, academically. But the impact and truth that can be conveyed by film is hard to measure. We’re also dealing with an oral culture, and I think film is a bit closer to that means of conveying a message.”

The film will be made collaboratively, says Sandiford, partially by design, and partially because of logistics. 

“These are faraway places,” he says from his home town of Charlottetown, “and some of the most expensive plane tickets you can imagine. For me to shoot the whole thing, I’d have to fly to each community several times during the year of the case study. So we’ll be hiring Inuit camera people to collect most of the raw video, and I think that’s really valuable. An Inuk will see things I won’t, and ask questions I wouldn’t think of.”

The film will be made for both Inuktitut and English audiences, but will be shot mainly in Inuktitut. The project, “Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and the Transformation of High School Education in Nunavut”, is funded by ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada. It is also a collaboration with the Nunavut Department of Education and the Coalition of District Education Authorities—the voice of parents in Nunavut.

photo credit

The Island as a case study

Guest post by  Dr Irene Novaczek, Institute of Island Studies, about the Time and A Place Conference at UPEI (June 13-18), which explores  environmental histories, environmental futures, and Prince Edward Island.

Environmentally speaking, Prince Edward Island is blessed with an exceedingly “usable” past.   Our well-documented history of extensive and varied resource use, our small size and the closeness of the people to land and sea mean that it is relatively easy for us to come to grips with how past environmental practices and attitudes have shaped Island society and ecology. This manageable scale and rich history were the inspiration for a unique interactive conference that will be hosted by the Institute of Island Studies at UPEI, from 13 to 18 June.

Challenging social, economic and environmental conditions have prompted the Province of Prince Edward Island to undertake a series of land use commissions in recent decades. As we enter an age of peak oil and climate change, what can we learn from our environmental history that might help us improve our performance in caring for the environment? The Institute of Island Studies has teamed up with the Network in Canadian History and Environment to bring together senior scholars, students, policy makers and community representatives to explore that question, share their knowledge and experiences and debate the possibilities for the future. Participants from across Canada, the USA, Iceland, Australia and Chile will engage in workshops and immerse themselves in Island landscapes, including a powwow ground, Acadian forest, archeological sites, coastal dunes, traditional farm fields, rural villages and city streets. At the end of the week, they will consider how public policy for the management and protection of the environment is developed, how environmental history can inform that process, and how concerned citizens, academics, artists and others can influence future policy.

Although the core conference is fully subscribed, the public is encouraged to participate by attending free public lectures by internationally recognized speakers that will take place every evening from June 13 through 18. On Sunday 14 June, Dr Finis Dunaway (Trent University) will explore the connection between visual culture and the environment, at the Confederation Centre.  On Monday Dr Donald Worster (U Kansas) will speak on “North Americans in an Age of Limits” at the Eptek Centre in Summerside. Tuesday’s offering by Dr Graeme Wynne (UBC) is on forest history of the Maritimes, at UPEI. Wednesday we will hear from world fisheries expert Dr Daniel Pauly (UBC), who will speak in the Souris theatre about past challenges and the way forward for fisheries. Dr Harriet Ritvo (MIT) is the keynote speaker for Thursday at UPEI. She will focus on our relationship with animals and how this has influenced human economics, society and the environment. Friday brings the Chief Justice Thane Campbell Lecture by distinguished environmental lawyer Toby Vigod, who will ask whether we are making progress in environmental law and policy in Canada. 

For full details visit or call the Institute of Island Studies at 566-0386 or visit us on facebook at "Time and a Place" UPEI Conference in Environmental History