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Interview with Dr. Dirk Steinke

📷 University of Guelph

Journalist: Raj Chakkal

Interviewer: Hi everybody first scientist of the week today we have Dr. Steinke good morning Dr. Steinke we're glad to have you on the show.

Dr. Steinke: Good morning yeah I'm I'm really glad to be there.

Interviewer: And so too begin off can you give the listeners a brief view of what DNA barcoding system is and how the one currently under development differs?

Dr. Steinke: Well yeah I should probably done define what DNA barcode is or what it's supposed to be used for in case listen I haven't heard listeners haven't heard of it or probably should have some some news about it word which you so DNA barcodes are short pieces of DNA so relatively short compared to how much DNA you could find in an in an organism cell we use these little snippets to distinguish species from each other so that means that if I get some sort of a DNA sample of an organism I am able using this method to pinpoint which species it is as long as I have it somewhere in a in a reference library of DNA barcodes so that's the that's the main concept of barcoding it's around since early 2000s so.

Interviewer: Fairly new.

Dr. Steinke: Sorry.

Interviewer: So it's fairly new.

Dr. Steinke: It's fairly new yeah if you look in in long term scientific times then you probably would say it's still fairly new probably 17, 18 years ago the concept was built upon everything revolved around building this reference library because she you have you can get DNA relatively simply nowadays from an organism and then you sequence that little piece of it which we're talking about and calling DNA barcode but the problem is you have to match it to something so we have to build a huge database of everything that is on earth and to be honest we don't even have an agreement how many species we share the planet with so it's a bigger endeavour and at this point probably have 1.5 million species sequenced probably 11 something are often revolving around that one uncertainty comes from exactly what I just said we don't know everything that's around us so now were fishing in the dark and trying to see if we discover new DNA sequence that doesn't match anything else in the database then we have to go through the lengths of seeing and verifying that it's actually really a new species that we have just not registered yet the scientists and DNA barcoding in a nutshell.

Interviewer: Okay, and how long has the University been working on this project?

Dr. Steinke: Well actually from the beginning because the idea of DNA barcoding was actually comes from the University of Guelph so my boss Paul Hebert was the one who developed it yet the idea he coined the name so in the early 2000 she was the one going around telling people that should be probably always going forward if we really want to number one catalog everything that's on earth fairly quickly and have alternatives to identify certain species in different contexts and then people ran with it and today we see a lot of uses of DNA barcodes that we never thought about when we started with everything I think the most famous uses were usually when you saw in the news that people were trying to get fish from sushi places or retailers or whatever and then were told by scientists is actually not what they claim it is it's something else it's a cheap substitute you buying there and for that we use DNA barcodes.

Interviewer: Okay so there is a bit of public setting usage for it.

Dr. Steinke: Oh yeah absolutely there's this and there this all sorts of things that that came bubbling up over the years does it's used a lot of times now in border control so specially when you're trying to track for cyber t listed species so they banned from trade and people trying to import them anyway so our agencies federal and provincial to intercept shipments at the border and sometimes materials are not necessarily in a shape that you could pinpoint it directly this species so that so then we could get a sample to help them identifying what it is and so that they can make court case or whatever or more famously or more recently when before Canada a year ago so banned shark finning barcoding was the method actually to give people an idea of the extent and the species involved in that trade because it's it's pretty widely spread and there's a lot of sharks that are killed for that particular purpose but what you end up when you confiscate the shipment or a ship load is a pile of shark fins and it's hard to tell which species they belong to but we were able to actually use that kind of method a better idea of how many protected species are actually within the catch.

Interviewer: Yeah for sure and what is your particular role in the research project?

Dr. Steinke: What's my particular role well I'm foremost I'm a researcher well what I'm doing right now is something that's sort of an addition and I probably refers to what you said at the beginning of the interview and said what is the new thing there my current research revolves a lot around an extension of the method of barcoding because at the beginning we were just we were extracting DNA from a single Organism or several organisms and then go down the route in sequencing the DNA and that's one Organism once at DNA and machinery allowed us to do who wanted to parallel up to 95, 96 of them that's what the sequence is allowed to do and that took probably a couple of couple of hours a couple of days before and the preparation however actually 10 years ago it really started to fly further and then we were able to use it and it became affordable something else called next generation sequencing or high throughput sequencing is another word for it where you can start doing these kinds of reaction massively in parallel so you're not generating 95, 96 sequences at a time you can generate millions of them which meant our initial efforts were already pretty advanced and saying okay we can produce so many barcodes a year to build this huge reference library but now all of a sudden that is turn 100 fold faster because there's new tech is it allows us to do that but on the other hand it also allows us to do something we haven't done before so imagine you have build a reference library for certain area and give an example out of my work Ontario or southern Ontario should be more precise and you look at all the different insect species or arthropod species that occur in our landscape so most of the trip astral animals and I'm very interested in also in in the ones that are associated with farm land in and around so now the normal way of trying to find out who lives there would be you have to sort of collect them all if you a modern then you would use barcoding to identify them one by one by one in the olden olden days would have to look through books and keys to to identify every species what we can do now is using this newer approach to barcoding which we call metabarcoding we take a sample of them all you can you can have several traps out there and you collect a weekly sample which is essentially a pile of insects you're looking at you can drive that you can grind it and you have a pile of powder of all these organisms in there and then you can take that and sample out of that and sequence with the new technology everything that's in so you get a huge mix of different organisms DNA and then you try to fish out your bar code fragments again and that's what we essentially doing metabarcoding so now I can start using a library of what I know monitoring overtime I'm probably monitoring in areas where I can see there might be changes because due to land use we're talking climate change we talking all these different things 'cause now I take samples out there run them with that single method match it to what I have in the database and I can quickly discover if there's any changes in the community composition.

Interviewer: Oh that's great and wow and so it's quite interesting how far you've come so from doing both your Masters and PhD already in Germany and then coming here to the University of Guelph, so what was the story behind you getting involved with the University of Guelph after getting your PhD in the

Dr. Steinke: Actually was doing my PhD so we had we got wind of the barcoding thing from earlier papers around that time from Paul Hebert and we were looking into okay can we use them for what we were doing at that point and I was working with a colleague in Germany which was a little outside my PhD work but it still fitted in somehow he's a amphibian guy so he was interested in doing DNA studies with these amphibians and then we developed software at that time really good today nobody would actually care about it we got much better but to use barcodes and to identify them out of unknown datasets and I took that software and the description of it and went to the very first international barcoding conference that actually happened to be in London England so that was sort of a hop for me from Germany so it was fairly easy so I met all these guys that came out of Guelph and everywhere else that was sort of the forefront of it and I met Paul Hebert and then we started discussing things while I was still doing my PhD we were talking on and off about a potential to come here to Guelph to do a poster and yeah I finished few months later I actually sat on the plane I'm coming to Guelph starting in post doc here and I've been in Guelph ever since morphing from a post doc all the way into the into being graduate faculty but still on everything so I I could see I'm I'm part of this barcode enterprise from from pretty early days.

Interviewer: Yeah almost since the beginning and so what have you we have been like some highlights of studying and researching in different countries and were there any challenges that you faced?

Dr. Steinke: It will highlights alot well I got around for research quite a bit and that's always exciting and accelerating because you get to see a little bit more not only of the nature you actually doing your conducting research in but also the culture and everything around you so I know Germans Germans are worldwide known for being very avid travelers and I probably have a little bit of that in me too so that sort of fits the bill there very quickly so do a lot of highlight certainly one of them was was being able to go to Costa Rica to one of our I'd say one of the ecology heroes there is for the past I don't know how many decades Daniel Jensen is one of the biggies in ecology and he has managed within 30, 40 years to build a protected area in the North of the country that is unprecedented and it's really it's he buys land form formally known as agricultural used to what have you and then rebuilds it and restores it so it's a huge area DCG and I had the chance to go there which was really spectacular and being and this Ground Zero for ecological restoration so everybody knows him from the textbooks and having the ability to work with him for now for over 10 years is this pretty on honorable and these kinds of highlights are really great.

Interviewer: For sure and what advice would you give to students that want to conduct research out of like their hometown or out of the country but might be hesitant to leave their comfort zone?

Dr. Steinke: Well you have a chance using these kinds of research number one if you really hesitant you don't want to leave your country or you do quite content in here you you are that's not a problem per see you can still conduct the research because there is a lot of what we've seen here over the years is we don't have to go to all these places and actually it would be a logistical and financial nightmare if we would have to do all the sampling from country to past years that was done because most of our samples actually come from collaborators from friends from people all over the place but get the proper permission and everything else and then their share samples at a certain stage with you and even if it's just say just it should be just but if it's data so you can still do something with that and you don't have to leave your house or in that case you lab in order to do all that kind of research all you need is good contacts with somebody somewhere else and then data is shared and work is shared and today with all the communication means there's no there's no barrier to that if you really don't want to and quite honestly traveling won't get easier in the next couple of years simply because of all that pandemic and the consequences of it and even if it's just money that will make flights and everything much more expensive and probably we also thinking about something like a carbon foot print so we have to really properly reduce it but there's ways around and I think because we operate globally enough also especially in research that we can actually do that.

Interviewer: Especially this technology is making things so much easier now as we advance.

Dr. Steinke: Absolutely.

Interviewer: And now outside of your professional career do you still have a passion for breeding ornamental fish at home?

Dr. Steinke: Yeah not right now that's just a matter of having the time to do that I used to do that as a kid and then later on as a kid with my father and later on if I had time it's on the list for potential retirement activities and I could probably spend the time I should on that you have to be if you really want to do it right you have to care a lot about it and spend some efforts on how to do it right so that's that fell by the wayside and under job family kids and everything else was more we had fish yes that's not a problem but really breeding them not but I'm pretty sure once I retired and have a bit more time that's one of the things I I'd love to do.

Interviewer: Alright but thank you for joining us today for the scientists of the week it was a pleasure having you.

Dr. Steinke: No problem thank you so much for having me it was great.


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