Concordia’s new ultra-sleek, $29-million Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics is a hive of research activity, but a feeling of calmness pervades the building. Perhaps it’s a result of the centre’s efficient layout, which provides researchers easy access to equipment and office space, so there’s less rushing back and forth.
“As you walk through here, you’ll see that everything here is right next to the work area,” explains Biotechnology Specialist Marc Champagne during a recent tour of the facilities. “And if I need to get a protocol, or make some complex calculation, my office is right there, my bench is here, fridge, freezer, and right there I have my chemicals.”
Researchers at the centre have access to an amazing array of instruments. Champagne points out a robotic colony-picking machine (each colony is the source of a single gene.) The machine can perform thousands of operations in a matter of hours (without human error), work that would take a legion of researchers days to perform. “If you’re wondering what state-of-the-art is, this is one such facility,” Champagne says. “And these are all shared resources. So anyone with a key card can use the equipment.”
Indeed, the centre prides itself on being Concordia’s largest, multidisciplinary research centre, bringing together genomics researchers from biology, chemistry, biochemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, exercise science and journalism.
All sorts of different projects are underway in the lab space at any given time. Researchers pursue different objectives simultaneously, side by side — the idea being that they will collaborate, and share their ideas. “Your first idea is never your best idea,” explains Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair David Walsh. “Being able to share your ideas can lead to these eureka moments.”
Some of the research underway at the centre has to do with creating biomass-derived fuels, to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels. Research Associate David Taylor explains the project he is working on: “We’re trying to produce enzymes that will break down agricultural products that are now thrown away or burned, and convert them into sugar that can be fermented into alcohol.”
Being able to decipher the blueprint of life can also lead to new, better materials for industry, better agricultural and forestry practices, and improved medicine and nutrition.
Two projects currently underway at the centre target one of Canada’s largest industries: pulp and paper. One project is trying to reduce the quantity of chemicals needed to make pulp and paper, and another is trying to turn the waste from the pulp and paper industry into bioethanol. “The paper industry is so huge in Canada that even if you were able to take 10 per cent off the cost, or use 10 per cent of the waste, you’re making a big difference in the economy,” Champagne says.
The new genomics centre was made possible through a massive investment from the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP), jointly funded by the Government of Canada and the Quebec Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade.
"These investments, undertaken in cooperation with the Government of Quebec, are essential if cegeps and universities are to modernize their aging infrastructure,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the time the investments were announced. “What's more, they stimulate the economy, create jobs and contribute to our economic recovery.”
The move from the genomics centre’s old digs on the fifth floor of the Richard J. Renaud Science Complex (SP Building) went smoothly, with only three days of downtime before all the major projects already underway were back up and running. The new building is a triumph of good planning, and its future is as bright as its basement, according to Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair Vincent Martin.
“We can tell a high-flying researcher, ‘you’re limited by your creativity and your desire to do some interesting science, and you’re not limited by your space or your equipment.’ That is an immense selling point for anyone wanting to come to this place.”
Watch the video about the new Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics:
• “Concordia Inaugurates Health and Genomics Research Centres” – NOW, November 3, 2011
• Knowledge Infrastructure Program
• Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics
• “From Compost to Sustainable Fuels” – NOW, October 3, 2011