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Loss of belugas Qila and Aurora leads to whale science breakthrough

Researchers use the whales' DNA to create "most complete mammalian genome in the scientific world"

The heartbreaking and controversial loss of two of the Vancouver Aquarium’s key attractions has led to a leap in beluga whale conservation science.

On November 16, 2016, Qila, a 21-year-old beluga, died suddenly at the Stanley Park facility. A week later, her 29-year-old mother, Aurora, also perished.

A months-long investigation discovered the whales succumbed to an unknown toxin likely introduced by food, water or human interference. Now scientists are digging deeper, not only to discover what killed Qila and Aurora, but to prevent other belugas from dying of the same thing.

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When the whales fell ill, Dr. Steven Jones, head of Bioinformatics at the Genome Sciences Centre, suggested genomics might help the Aquarium’s veterinary team discover what was causing their illness.

“We had a lot of beluga DNA and we realized we had enough to sequence the complete beluga genome,” says Dr. Jones. “We think it’s one of the most complete mammalian genomes in the scientific world. It will ultimately provide us with many tools to study beluga whales.”

What is a genome?

A genome, stored in one long sequence of DNA, contains all the information an organism needs to grow and develop. The sequence determines the creature’s characteristics, inherited traits, diseases it may be susceptible to and provides a historical archive of the organism and its species.

“The beluga genome provides a baseline for the species that researchers have never had access to before,” says Dr. Catalina Lopez-Correa, Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President, Sectors at Genome BC.

“Scientists can now use it to understand the evolution of the species and how it has adapted to icy aquatic ecosystems,” says Lopez-Correa. “They can investigate population structure, genetic variations, and recent demographic events, begin to understand gene functionality, identify areas of vulnerability to disease, and learn what might be impacting the species’ ability to thrive, especially in the face of a warming climate and rapidly changing environment.”

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