Vanvouver Island University researcher wins major grant to study sea lice27 July, 2009 – Sea lice research in Canada has been boosted with the award of a CA$413,000 federal research grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to Dr. Duane Barker of Vancouver Island University.It is the largest single, non-equipment grant ever awarded to a Vancouver Island University researcher.Im really proud of the fact that over 80 percent of this grant will go towards student salaries, said Barker, an expert in fish health diseases and fish parasites at VIUs Fisheries and Aquaculture department. During the next three years, well train at least 12 VIU undergraduates, four graduate students (VIU alumni) and one post-doctoral researcher. Three undergrads are already working in our lab this summer.A key part of the project is training students and fish health technicians how to diagnose salmon health using various techniques including biochemical and genetic tests, plus, disease modelling, added Barker.There will be terrific networking opportunities for students at national and international conferences, and with fish health experts in BC, he said. The experience (working on this project) will build their skill set and look fantastic on their resumes.Barkers co-investigators on the project include Dr. Simon Jones, Dr. Kyle Garver and Dr. Stewart Johnson, all of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.Sea lice have become one of the most hotly debated topics concerning farmed salmon in British Columbia. The controversy concerns the exchange of sea lice between wild and farmed salmon and the possible implications for BCs wild salmon stocks.Right now, recent research data indicates higher levels of sea lice are found on wild salmon caught in the open ocean, away from farms, said Barker. A lot of people think its the other way around.Sea lice are naturally-occurring parasites that live on the skin of wild fish, and are passed on to farmed fish, Barker said. One variable that has not been addressed is the direct or indirect role of sea lice contributing to disease development, he added. Whats not clear is whether sea lice pass on pathogens (viruses, bacteria) to fish. Few reports have isolated viral and bacterial pathogens from sea lice, but actual pathogen transmission has never been tested.The role sea lice as a vector (transmitter) remains undefined. In other words, when (seasonally) and where (geographically), could sea lice carry important pathogens to salmon? Such information is critical to the salmon farming industry in BC and elsewhere. The answers could lead to improved health management strategies for salmon farmers and fishery managers and better detection of pathogens in the environment. The research could also lead to a greater understanding of the ecological and immunological roles of sea lice in the interactions of disease between wild and farmed salmon.The research will be conducted in two phases. Initially, in a controlled setting, Barkers team will test the potential of sea lice to carry pathogens. If they are carriers, the researchers will describe and analyse patterns of when and where pathogen levels on sea lice are at their highest on farmed and wild salmon in the waters around Vancouver Island.If the research shows sea lice are not pathogen carriers, well study the effect of sea lice feeding at the microscopic scale of the fishs skin and how it impacts the immune response at a genetic level, he continued.This research is topical, yet novel, in that it presents a unique opportunity to study the direct and indirect contribution to disease progression by a commercially important parasite of salmon.Other partners in the three year study include Dr. M. Sheppard, Dr. I. Keith and Ms. M. Coombs of the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, Dr. S. Saksida of the BC Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences and Dr. D. Morrison and Mr. B. Boyce of Marine Harvest, Canada, one of the largest salmon farming companies in BC.VIU student researcher Danielle Lewis is excited about the opportunity to work with Barker and his prestigious team of researchers. This is my first experience working in a scientific research lab, said Lewis, who is about to start her fourth year in the Bachelor of Science (Biology) program at VIU. My area of interest is microbiology so this is a perfect fit. Ill keep working in the lab once school starts, and the research will count as credit towards my senior Biology 491 research project.Barker will supervise Lewis and two other undergrads, Amanda Stull and Marie Sandeman-Allen, as well as the masters students and the post-doctoral researcher who will be hired in September. This is the kind of experience that will basically lead our undergraduates straight into graduate school, Barker said.VIU President Ralph Nilson said the institution is extremely proud of faculty researchers like Dr. Barker who attract major research grants. We are grateful to the funding agencies like NSERC who support our organisation, faculty and students. This grant will enhance the quality of the learning experience for students through applied research and discovery, and allow VIU to contribute to the development of new knowledge for our region and global economy.