Canada must be faster at innovating. This crosses many sectors, information technology, biotechnology, agricultural sciences, environmental biology and medical therapeutics, there is a common thread. All of these areas are data intensive, with more and more information becoming available to help deal with challenges to health, production, the environment and more. It is truly becoming a larger challenge to critically access data, and to completely capitalize on what is being provided. It is the proverbial “Thirsting for Knowledge, Drowning in Information” position.
The move to “big data” is having an immense impact on the life sciences. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to find that nugget of usable information from the reams and reams of available data. There are many outstanding questions now on how we deal with data and how we access it. Questions like how do we store data and do we have capacity for keeping it? Who owns the data? And more!
Environmental management requires a lot of information. Decisions on how to deal with various challenges requires interpretation of volumes of data. Sometimes decisions can be made with incomplete data with controversial responses. As an example, the sources of phosphorus in Lake Erie’s algal blooms are being monitored from point sources, but these actually may not be enough.
Cross border acquisition of data is also happening and comes in various forms. Acquiring the amount of data that is required to make a comprehensive decision can be very costly. This would be an instance where the cost of acquiring the data may compromise the veracity of the data.
In agriculture, data is driving farming decisions. Global positioning systems and self-driving tractors and combines are driven by data. Similar to the self driving car which is imminent on the market, there are companies developing the driver-less and in fact “cab-less” tractors. Agriculture has embraced the self-driving technology, and data can even tell you what was planted within a square foot, and also what the harvest was within a specific part of a field. All of this technology is providing farmers critical information for decisions on what fields to plant, when to plant, what to plant and how to maximize production. We are at the point where it is necessary to have the ability to evaluate terabytes of data in a short window.
Nowhere is the data conundrum becoming more acute than in the genomics space. Many species’ full genomes are now known and the human genome can be found online. And yet it is extremely difficult currently to extract knowledge.
In Ag-biotech, capitalizing on plant and animal genomes offers tremendous opportunity to improve the way we develop food products. And it is not just the general production of agricultural products that are the only topics of consideration. Genomics allow us to look into diverse characteristics beyond production. For example, understanding the genomic linkage to aggression in livestock and finding ways to mitigate this could lead to a better environment for animal husbandry. The secondary benefit could also be improved financial return to the farmer because of improved performance.
On the health side, the study of genomics and data mining could offer tremendous insights into rare diseases. One of the many challenges is related to the phenotypic linkage to the genomic traits. When many diseases have similar symptoms, the ability to effectively mine data for potential solutions will no doubt lead to faster diagnoses and treatment solutions. But the immensity of the data that must to be searched could also make the determination of the solution also costly. Still, it could potentially be significantly less intrusive and deliver effective solutions in a much more timely manner. Instead of taking years or decades for solutions, our ability to find links through genome mining could be a tremendous advantage to many.
So, whether you are monitoring the moisture content of a field growing tomatoes, understanding the output traits required for industrial oil production from plants, tracking phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie, or developing solutions to human health issues, use of big data will play a larger and more essential role. Our ability to manage these data will no doubt impact the pace of science and speed of innovation adoption and affect the Canadian competitiveness in the international landscape.
About the Author
Dr. John Kelly is currently Chief Executive Officer at KeliRo Company, with a mission to support companies in life science sectors, with an emphasis on innovation, business development and international trade. He is also Vice Chair of Life Sciences Ontario.