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Past Winner
2002 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Louis Bernatchez

Molecular Ecology

Université Laval

Louis Bernatchez is following in Charles Darwin's footsteps. Just as the celebrated naturalist sought to discover the secrets of evolution by observing the birds of the Galapagos Islands, this associate professor from the Université Laval is seeking a better understanding of the processes of adaptation and evolution by studying freshwater fish, more precisely whitefish. The difference, however, is that Dr. Bernatchez uses molecular genetics, combined with ecology, in his study of the process of speciation. Not only are the fish genomes shedding light on important evolutionary questions, but this research has also made an important contribution to biodiversity conservation. "For me," he says, "both aspects are critical; I wouldn't be able to do my work without this bridge between understanding and bioconservation."

Louis Bernatchez has been carrying out cutting-edge research since 1990, and though still in the early stages of his career, he's already considered to be one of the best molecular ecologists in his field. His work has earned him a 2002 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship - one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes. In partnership with the approximately twenty members of his multidisciplinary research team, Dr. Bernatchez is attempting to show how different populations that once belonged to the same species can evolve into new species through interactions with their environment.

In the first phase of his research, Dr. Bernatchez retraced the genetic history of all modern whitefish populations, which the last ice age had separated geographically. DNA analyses allowed the genetic drift between each group to be measured. At a finer level, Bernatchez and his team then focused on a few lakes where some of these populations have once again come in contact but don't actually occupy the same ecological niche. (One population may feed on benthic fauna, for example, while another feeds on plankton in the water column.) Although nothing in theory prevents it, the two populations do not interbreed. The study, which has both ecological and genetic facets, then establishes the links between their specialized niches and the genome specific to each of the groups.

"The third phase of our research," explains Dr. Bernatchez, "involves functional genomics, which allows us to simultaneously quantify the degree of expression of several thousand genes and establish the genetic bases of these adaptive differences. Unraveling the genetic basis of adaptation represents one of the final frontiers in the study of the evolution of new species." In practice, the task involves specifying and describing the influence of the chromosonal regions that affect the "phenotypic" traits of a population. This form of genetic cartography is still in its infancy in the field of evolutionary biology. It doesn't yet allow researchers to say which genes are specifically involved. The NSERC Steacie Fellowship will enable professor Bernatchez to develop the resources and expertise needed to take this next step.

Besides filling in a few more pieces of the great evolutionary puzzle, these studies and other related projects have found various applications within conservation programs. Fisheries managers are now better able to safeguard the genetic integrity of a unique population by choosing the most appropriate protection or restocking strategies. These studies will also allow the industry to optimize practices for the management of natural populations. "This is one way to make a contribution both to science and to the protection of the environment," stresses Dr. Bernatchez.