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Accelerating high-potential research: 14 new projects funded

Published on 21 Mar 2024

Following two competitions, 14 proposals have been selected for the Sentinel North Research Acceleration Fund. By providing one-time funding to established Université Laval research teams, this Fund aims to accelerate research on emerging or high-impact issues related to Sentinel North's mission.

Find out more about the projects selected for the Research Acceleration Fund below :



Annual bioavailability of lipids essential to food webs across the Canadian Arctic

Principal investigator: Rémi Amiraux, Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval


Jean-Éric Tremblay, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Connie Lovejoy, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Aurélie Labarre, Postdoctoral Fellow under the supervision of C. Lovejoy
Philippe Massicotte, Research Professional, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Simon Jaffrès, Doctoral Student under the supervision of R. Amiraux and J.-E. Tremblay

Diatoms are the main primary producers in the Arctic Ocean and the main source of polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3) that are essential for higher organisms; they are unable to synthesize them. As the main components of the cell membranes of all organisms, these molecules play a vital role in maintaining their physiological functions. Omega-3 bioavailability thus plays a decisive role in ecosystem health, including the health of individuals, their reproductive capacity and their total population. With global warming particularly pronounced in the Arctic, we expect a reduction in omega-3 biosynthesis by diatoms and, as a cascade effect, an alteration of the entire Arctic food chain and the populations that depend on it (including the Inuit). To understand the impact of climate change on Arctic marine ecosystem dynamics, we need to quantify the current bioavailability of omega-3s. The aim of this project is to provide these first estimates at the scale of the Canadian Arctic. It is based on in situ measurements that were collected aboard the CCGS Amundsen in 2019 and 2021, which will be extrapolated to the Canadian Arctic using water reflectance measurements from satellite imagery. We anticipate that this project will generate at least two scientific publications and provide a baseline of omega-3 bioavailability, enabling the development of effective environmental protection measures.


Optimizing the characterization of fungal bioaerosols inside homes in Arctic and Subarctic regions

Principal investigator: Caroline Duchaine, Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Bioinformatics, CRC-1 on Bioaerosols, Researcher at the Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec, Université Laval

Indoor air quality can have a direct impact on people’s quality of life and respiratory health, as they spend up to 90% of their time inside their homes. Moisture problems or water seepage can lead to mould growth and, thus, the formation of bioaerosols. In a northern setting, where buildings are subjected to extreme climate conditions and where thawing permafrost causes structural damage, water seepage and mould problems can be exacerbated.

Establishing the link between respiratory illness and exposure to indoor mould is complex, and relies on time-consuming, non-quantitative approaches. The WHO stresses the need to develop molecular methods specifically for this problem. Genome sequences that are specific to different mould species enable the development of detection/quantification approaches for moulds of interest. Calculating an index value would make it possible to quantitatively estimate overall mould exposure in relation to various parameters, such as occupant health.

We propose the development and validation of a multiplex protocol (36 targets) for high-throughput qPCR (HTqPCR/5184 simultaneous reactions). Samples from homes in Nunavik will be used to apply this new methodology and quantitatively assess exposure to complex fungal bioaerosols. In the future, this tool will enable us to better understand the impact of the environmental and architectural parameters present in Nunavik, their impact on exposure to fungal bioaerosols and its effect on human health.


Development of statistical methods to characterize animal movement tactics in complex systems

Principal investigators: Daniel Fortin, Department of Biology, Université Laval ; Louis Paul Rivest, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Université Laval ; Jérôme Cimon-Morin, Department of Wood and Forest Sciences, Université Laval


Théo Michelot, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dalhousie University
Yan Boulanger, Natural Resources Canada
James Hodson, Department of Environment and Climate Change, Government of the Northwest Territories
Allicia Kelly, Environmental Assessment [Tłı̨chǫ All-Season Road], Department of Environment and Climate Change, Government of the Northwest Territories

Animals use a variety of tactics on the move, resulting in different modes of movement. An individual may make short, random movements when feeding (1st mode), then make a long, directed movement (2nd mode) to another food patch. Although a trajectory generally involves >2 types of movement mode, the lack of statistical tools reduces the ability to describe this level of complexity, especially when species interact. This project aims to develop a statistical method for characterizing movements when several modes are involved and when these modes are dynamic, owing to interspecific interactions. The approach will be to develop a Bayesian inference framework for multi-state and multi-animal (woodland caribou, wood bison, moose, wolf and black bear) hidden Markov models, in order to simultaneously process all movement components of the animals and their interactions. The method developed will enable us to assess whether predators and, indirectly, prey induce changes in the movement tactics of other species in the community. We will then assess the extent to which modelling these changes can help predict variations in prey mortality rates. This information is essential for understanding the impact of environmental changes on Subarctic food webs. The project will also accelerate and enhance the analyses of our Sentinel North research project on food web dynamics and threats to food security in the northern boreal forest.


Taking traditional knowledge into account in order to protect sources of drinking water

Principal investigator: Stéphanie Guilherme, Professor, Department of Civil and Water Engineering, Université Laval

Collaborator: Manuel Rodriguez, Professor, École supérieure d’aménagement du territoire et de développement régional (ESAD, Graduate School of Land Management and Regional Planning), Université Laval

Access to drinking water for populations served by water supply systems in northern communities may be limited. Water is particularly vulnerable to microbiological and chemical contamination. Most villages rely on surface water, which is more vulnerable to weather conditions, such as precipitation and snowmelt or thawing permafrost, which can bring contaminants and ultimately impact drinking water quality.

In Canada, drinking water is protected by applying a multi-barrier approach, based on identifying threats to water quality and putting barriers in place to reduce and prevent their impact. The first barrier is source protection, which aims to identify, reduce and control elements that pose a threat to the quality of source water. This exercise requires greater knowledge of the activity and elements present in the area around the sources. Unfortunately, this data is very limited in Nunavik. However, this knowledge is present in the collective memory of the Inuit and their in-depth knowledge of the natural habitat and environment. The aim of this project is to develop a method for identifying threats to water quality that capitalizes on local knowledge of land use and anthropogenic and natural activity around sources. This method would enable Nunavik’s northern villages to develop suitable water protection strategies with limited resources. 


The lemming-o-meter: a passive sensor for measuring spatiotemporal variations in the abundance of micromammals

Principal investigator: Pierre Legagneux, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval


Daniel C. Côté, Professor, Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Optics, Université Laval
Dominique Gravel, Professor, Department of Biology, Université de Sherbrooke
Antoine Allard, Professor, Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Optics, Université Laval
Gabriel Bergeron, Doctoral Student in Biology, Université Laval
Thomas Shooner, Master’s Student, Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Optics, Université Laval
Gabrielle Martin Fortier, Research Professional, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Mireille Quémener, Research Professional, Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Optics, Université Laval

Lemmings are core species of the Arctic terrestrial ecosystem with significant interannual fluctuations. Studying the dynamics of their abundance is complex and requires the implementation of monitoring programs requiring considerable trapping efforts that are limited to an area of a few hectares. Opportunistic observations can provide information on a larger scale, but are highly dependent on efforts on the ground. Large-scale spatial and fine-scale temporal information on the relative abundance of small mammals is essential if we are to understand the determinants of the synchrony of lemming populations, which are sometimes found several tens or even hundreds of kilometres apart. Our team has recently developed a passive detection system (several infrared sensors detecting the passage of animals through a tube) that operates year-round and that should enable us to detect the presence and relative abundance of lemmings at our study site (Bylot Island, Nunavut). The funds requested will be used to improve the design for operation in harsh environmental conditions. In less than six months, our multidisciplinary team has produced two generations of prototypes that provide high energy autonomy, ease of deployment and low unit cost, enabling large-scale deployment. We intend to validate its use on Bylot Island by coupling it with the ATLAS reverse-GPS system, which enables us to track lemmings in real time. These different technologies will be presented during workshops with young people in the Environmental Technology Program.


Development of a new variable fluorescence in situ imager for the photophysiological study of ice algae

Principal investigators: Simon Thibault, Professor, Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Optics, Université Laval ; Marcel Babin, Adjunct Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Remote Sensing of Canada’s New Arctic Frontier 

Collaborator: Samuel Laney, Professor, Department of Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, Biological Oceanography, MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Advancing Transdisciplinary Research on the Changing North.

We aim to transform our in situ microscopy system for sea ice, which has already produced promising results by imaging, for the first time directly in the pack ice, the microstructure as well as the microorganisms that inhabit it. With the funding requested, we are planning a key transformation by integrating a variable fluorescence imaging function to study the photosynthesis of the cells observed. This will require modifications to the illumination system and the development of fluorescence detection solutions adapted to the probe’s physical housing. The second improvement will be to enable the position of the focal plane to be changed, providing more information for species identification. Accordingly, we will conceptualize and validate the integration of two-axis camera movement. We will validate the instrument with the new variable fluorescence functions in the field, documenting the in situ photosynthetic state of ice algae on a microscopic scale for the first time. This new tool represents an opportunity to broaden our understanding of Arctic ecosystems, in particular, to better understand how polar micro-algae adapt to this extreme environment.


Design and performance of transportation infrastructure built on unstable permafrost: the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway

Principal investigator: Jean-Pascal Bilodeau, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Water Engineering, Université Laval


Simon Dumais, Assistant Professor, Department of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering, Université Laval
Guy Doré, Retired Professor, Department of Civil and Water Engineering, Université Laval
Thomas Ingeman, Associate Professor, Department of Environmental and Resource Engineering, Geotechnics & Geology, Denmark Technical University
Marolo Alfaro, Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Manitoba

Transportation infrastructure in northern regions plays a vital role in providing services to remote, isolated and vulnerable communities, ensuring their safety, but also access to resources and ensuring territorial defence. Their construction on permafrost affects the thermal regime of frozen soils, which can lead to their degradation. Due to a lack of knowledge and information, much of the existing transportation infrastructure in northern Quebec and Canada was designed using methods and standards that are ill-suited to the northern setting and permafrost , and the intensification of climate change in these regions is complicating the engineering challenges. The development of economical and sustainable solutions requires a better understanding of the factors contributing to permafrost degradation under embankments, and the development of rigorous thermal and mechanical design methods to ensure infrastructure reliability. The aim of the project is to accelerate the development of a database to support the design of thermo-mechanically stable transportation infrastructure adapted to the effects of climate change. The highway linking Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories constitutes a unique, full-scale laboratory for developing the knowledge and tools needed to optimize the design and performance of road embankments in the northern environment, for the benefit of its communities. After an initial experimental phase, this project aims to carry out laboratory and modelling activities that will make it possible to use results previously obtained in the field to support the development of engineering tools.


Automated analysis of trace elements essential to life along the land-sea continuum

Principal investigator: Raoul-Marie Couture, Professor, Department of Chemistry, Université Laval


Dominic Larivière, Professor, Department of Chemistry, Université Laval
Mathieu Ardyna, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Jay Cullen, Professor, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria
Warwick Vincent, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Catherine Girard, Professor, Department of Basic Sciences, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
David Baqué, Research Professional, Université Laval
Marie-Ève Fraser, Laboratory and Research Technician, Université Laval

Over the past five years, the Sentinel North Research Chair in Aquatic Environmental Geochemistry has taken our teams from the Mackenzie Delta to northern Ellesmere Island. While our teams were working on a wide range of freshwater and glacial ecosystems from the 55th to the 82nd parallel, we also took advantage of these large-scale logistics to gather a vast collection of saltwater samples. This project aims to leverage this collection of samples using a new analytical chemistry technology based on resin separation, while laying the foundations that will enable us to join future Arctic geoscience projects. 

Specifically, the measurement of trace elements essential to life (macronutrients) in the marine environment represents a major analytical challenge due to the minute concentration of elements of interest in the presence of large quantities of dissolved salts, which cause instrumental interference. Our project aims to develop state-of-the-art analytical methods, by means of collaborative laboratory work, for measuring trace elements in a wide range of polar environments, such as the ancient lakes of Ellesmere Island and sea-ice brines. We will use a new automated module, which facilitates the automatic separation of dissolved elements on resins. These results will lead to rapid publication on the basis of samples already in our possession and contribute to the training of graduate students. Finally, this expertise will position us at the forefront of Arctic biogeochemical research.


Participatory research on food security and the promotion of a healthy traditional diet in the Arctic regions of the Kitikmeot through a better understanding of edible species ecosystems, as well as the design of protocols for the propagation and indoor and outdoor cultivation of traditional plants integral to the Inuit food system, culture and identity

Principal investigators: Martine Dorais, Full Professor, Department of Plant Science, Université Laval ; Line Rochefort, Full Professor, Department of Plant Science, Université Laval ; Line Lapointe, Full Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval ; Caroline Hervé, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Université Laval


Chantal Langlois, Clinical Dietitian, Government of Nunavut/Kitikmeot
Shawn Clark, Research Biologist, NRC
Erin Cox, Arctic Biologist, Polar Knowledge Canada
David Hik, Arctic Ecologist, Chief Scientist, Polar Knowledge Canada
Alain Cuerrier, Adjunct Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Université de Montréal
Alison Ferrie, Principal Research Officer, Aquatic and Crop Resource Development, NRC
Zoe Panchen, Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, Acadia University
Stephan Schott, Professor, School of Public Policy and Administration, Carleton University

Traditional berries and edible/medicinal plants form an integral part of the Inuit food system, culture and identity. However, the harsh Arctic environment imposes severe constraints on plant development, exacerbated by climate change, limiting harvesting opportunities. The accessibility/availability of traditional plants to Inuit communities is also impacted by extreme temporal and spatial variability in species abundance. A lack of knowledge of the conditions required for the cultivation of traditional High Arctic species, coupled with limited access to propagation material, represents a major obstacle for Inuit communities seeking to grow their favourite traditional plants and support their self-sufficiency and food security. To support the initiatives of the Kitikmeot High Arctic communities, this project proposes two main activities. Firstly, the characterization of the ecosystems associated with the selected Arctic species, their phenotype monitoring and the collection of propagation material. Secondly, the performance of propagation and cultivation trials at Cambridge Bay.

Expected short-term results include (i) improved knowledge of the relationships between the soil properties of the selected species, their phenotypic development and climatic conditions, (ii) the evaluation of the performance of propagation material and growth under various growing conditions, and (iii) the design of protocols for the propagation and indoor/outdoor cultivation of the selected Arctic species, to be optimized/validated in a longer-term project.

The potential benefits of this project are to contribute to increasing the year-round accessibility and availability of edible/medicinal Arctic berries and plants in the traditional Inuit diet, thus contributing to their self-sufficiency/food security.


Impact of nanoparticles derived from fires and incineration on Arctic marine primary production

Principal investigator: Julien Gigault, Professor, Department of Chemistry, Université Laval/CNRS


Pierre Legagneux, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Rémi Amiraux, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval/CNRS
Sebastien Sauvé, Professor, Department of Chemistry, Université de Montréal

We have recently demonstrated that the increase in forest and urban fires is releasing a considerable quantity of nanoparticles into the atmosphere. These nanoparticles are often composed of refractory organic matter, plastics, polymers, metal oxides and other organic compounds. Nanoparticles represent a significant fraction of particulate matter in terms of mass and reactive surface area, which raises numerous questions about their impact on Arctic ecosystems, based on their potential to be both beneficial and toxic. Transported by atmospheric currents, these nanoparticles reach the poles, bringing contaminants and other associated chemical compounds with them. Our proposed project aims to understand the effect of fire-derived nanoparticles on primary producers in the Arctic Ocean, as well as their impact on the food web and the major biogeochemical cycles. Our initial results suggest that the size, shape, composition and speciation of these nanoparticles, whether from natural or anthropogenic fires, modify primary production and influence the behaviour of organic matter by altering the physico-chemical properties of its dissolved, colloidal and particulate fractions of this material. Although we have recently developed methods to characterize the presence and origin of these nanoparticles in the marine environment, in particular, using pyrolysis-GC-MS and time-of-flight mass spectrometry (ICP-Q-TOF) on individual particles, we currently lack data on their biological implications. Consequently, the objective of this project is to isolate and characterize specific bio-markers induced by Arctic primary producers exposed to these sources of soot-derived nanoparticles.


Portable impedance-triggered imaging cytometer for in situ longitudinal monitoring and characterization of Arctic phytoplankton

Principal investigators: Benoit Gosselin, Full Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Université Laval ; Mathieu Ardyna, Visiting Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval


Jesse Greener, Full Professor, Department of Chemistry, Université Laval
Pierre Marquet, Full Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Université Laval
Marc-André Gaudreau, Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières 

This collaborative project between the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Takuvik International Research Laboratory, supported by the Vanier scholarship, involves accelerating the development of a portable, self-contained device for detecting, characterizing and identifying aquatic microorganisms and microparticles (MMs) between 2µm and 200µm directly in their natural habitat. The proposed approach is entirely portable, non-invasive and label-free. It uses impedance cytometry [1] to detect MMs circulating in an intelligent microfluidic system equipped with sensors. The detected particles then trigger a burst of images from a high-resolution imaging module. These images are then combined with the dielectric characteristics obtained from the impedance cytometry to build an open-access multi-modal database.

The instrument developed will be one of the only instruments enabling the longitudinal study of aquatic MMs. In addition to enabling the study and discovery of new microorganisms and monitoring the effects of microplastics on ecosystems, its development could lead to the creation of intellectual property and product commercialization. The Fund will allow us to build a prototype in time to collect practical results in the field in the spring of 2025: preliminary tests will first be carried out in the Takuvik laboratory with Arctic diatoms, then with natural samples from the St. Lawrence River in preparation for a three-week collection during a mission to the Qikiqtarjuaq research station as part of the Baseline Program.


Innovation in mine soil rehabilitation: the potential of plasma-treated seeds encapsulated in biomaterials

Principal investigators: Véronic Landry, Full Professor, Department of Wood and Forest Sciences, Université Laval ; Damase Khasa, Full Professor, Department of Wood and Forest Sciences, Université Laval


Jacopo Profili, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Mining, Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, Université Laval
Mariel Alejandra Zevallos Luna, Doctoral Student, Department of Wood and Forest Sciences, Université Laval
Sandrine Toupin, Research Professional, Institute of Integrative Biology and Systems, Université Laval
Jérémy Winninger, Research Professional, Department of Wood and Forest Sciences, Université Laval

This project follows on from research carried out independently of this funding application, aimed at understanding the impact of plasma on the germination processes of northern seeds and the development of encapsulation biopolymer matrices for mining land rehabilitation. 

This research proposal capitalizes on previous results to study the synergy between the two technologies and validate the sustainability of solutions for rehabilitating soils depleted in organic matter. Here, the polymer matrix is an ecological hydrogel prepared from food waste, in particular, starch extracted from potato peels. The latter is chemically modified in order to improve water retention and control its biodegradability. In this context, the bio-substrate acts as a nutrient reservoir for seeds and represents a significant step toward a new type of ecological rehabilitation. Cold plasma treatment is envisaged to control the physico-chemical interaction between the seeds and the biomatrix. This approach aims to increase seed viability and vigour, by accelerating germination and subsequent growth in unfavourable conditions. This project will enable us to recycle agri-food waste by creating a high-performance organic matrix and demonstrate the effectiveness of plasma treatment for improving seed growth. This interdisciplinary project opens up new possibilities for the ecological restoration of mining sites and the sustainable management of natural resources.


Development of decentralized water sanitation facilities targeting contaminant removal at the source of domestic wastewater in Nunavik, Quebec

Principal investigator : Céline Vaneeckhaute, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Université Laval

Collaborators :

Marc Journeault, Full Professor, École de comptabilité, Université Laval
Hossein Kazemian, Full Professor, University of Northern British Columbia

This project is complementary to our ongoing project funded by Sentinel North. The existing research project focuses on advancing the conventional wastewater treatment lagoons in Nunavik, Quebec, while this new research proposal aims to broaden the scope by addressing contaminant removal at the source of domestic wastewater, especially source-separated urine. The anticipated outcome of this new research is the rapid mitigation of local water pollution within a short timeframe. This research introduces an innovative filtration column composed of biochar and zeolite that is designed for seamless integration with existing in-house toilets and domestic wastewater storage equipment. The implementation of this decentralized water sanitation facility is anticipated to alleviate the treatment burden and reduce the contaminant load at the centralized wastewater treatment lagoon. Its theoretical feasibility has been validated through our latest lab-scale experiments. As outlined in the current research proposal, the pilot-scale installation will be designed, constructed, and tested on the campus of Université Laval. This pilot-scale initiative aims to enhance adaptability to the extreme climate in the North. The key innovations of this research initiative lie in its focus on reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in centralized wastewater treatment plants. This is achieved by removing contaminants at the source of domestic wastewater and recovering them as valuable nutrients. Additionally, the research aims to contribute valuable insights into the application of a novel wastewater treatment technology, with potential for future water reuse, in extreme low temperature conditions.


Exploring Antibiotic Resistance Dynamics in Lichen Woodlands

Principal Investigator: Juan Carlos Villarreal A., Associate Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval

Collaborators :

Marta Alonso-García, research professional, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Paul George, Adjunct Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Bioinformatics, Université Laval
Caroline Duchaine, Full Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Bioinformatics, Université Laval

Antibiotic resistance poses a major threat to global public health, with environmental reservoirs playing a pivotal role in its dissemination. This project aims to elucidate the presence and abundance of bacterial antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) within lichen woodlands (LW), a unique ecosystem vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and wildfires. Through a preliminary screening of lichen samples from both northern (Kuujjuarapik) and southern (Parc National des Grands-Jardins) LW regions, we will confirm the presence of ARGs and quantify their abundance using cutting-edge SmartChip Real-Time PCR technology. By comparing ARG levels between regions, we seek to uncover geographical patterns and explore the influence of environmental factors on ARG presence and abundance. The project's short-term outcomes will confirm whether lichens are reservoirs of ARGs and provide insights into the dynamics of antibiotic resistance in LW ecosystems. Our interdisciplinary approach combines expertise on microbiology, bioinformatics, environmental science, and human health. The results will foster new lines of research and collaborations, paving the way for future grant applications aim at addressing antibiotic resistance and its implications for northern ecosystems and communities. This research contributes to expanding our knowledge about a topic that has yet to be fully recognized as an immediate concern in northern regions but has the potential to become one given the severity of the global antibiotic resistance crisis.


Discover all Sentinel North research projects here