Singh wins Genetics Society of Canada's Top Honour


By Mitch Zimmer
Friday, April 4, 2008
The Award of Excellence given by the Genetics Society of Canada celebrates a lifetime of achievement. In Shiva Singh's case, he maintains he won the award because of the hard work of whole teams of people over the years - students, post docs and technicians. As he puts it, he's “lucky to have tal­ented and dedicated people asso­ciated with our research." He added, “During the acceptance, Ihad all the people who have ever worked in the lab, 'here are the people who truly deserve it and I will take it on their behalf'."
The award was part of the 4th Canadian Developmental Biology Conference, a congress sponsored by The Society for Developmental Biology, the Genetics Society of Canada, and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research held in the Banff Centre.  That esprit de corps followed the Biology professor back home, “For now, students want to keep the award in the lab," he says. “It was nice to be recognized."
Singh's research into schizophrenia has explored many avenues through the years. “I think we are right up there in terms of being able to compete with the novel hypotheses and novel approaches to really tackle this complex problem," he says.  In the 1990s he started his investigation of retroviral sequences in the human genome and then explored the role of methylation and epigenetics until 2005-2006. His lab is now adding a new technique.
“We are the first ones in the world to look for copy number variations in schizophrenia," says Singh. “Our project is also unique because we have designed our experimental approach to include monozygotic twins."
It took 17 years to collect the DNA from 73 pairs of twins from all over the world and now he plans to assay the copy number variations in the samples.  “The reason for that is very straight forward in that although schizophrenia is a genetic disease, monozygotic twins who are supposed to be 100 per cent genetically identical have a risk of developing the disease 50 per cent of the time. So if one has it, the probability that the other twin will also have the disease is only 50 per cent," Singh explains.
“The problem with copy number variation is that it's a very tedious and complex technology."
In this assay, the whole genome must be scanned using the most comprehensive DNA chip available (Singh also played a role in developing the DNA chip technology with Affimetrix). Singh is applying the technique to the twin DNA samples and asking the question “What's the difference between the two? They are monozygotic yet one has the disease and the other one doesn't. Our pilot data already shows that twins are not identical. There are a lot of differences that come about during their growth and development."
Singh's work on alcoholism is somewhat different. In that case there are five people in his lab studying gene expression. “Rather than focusing on the DNA, that work totally focuses on the RNA. The gene is there, then it produces the messenger RNA and then it produces the protein and something happens and it's played out. Our hypothesis there is that alcohol itself affects the gene expression. You may take a glass of alcohol, your gene expression pattern may be very different from mine and depending on that gene expression pattern you may be sensitive to it and I may not. It's the response to ethanol on your DNA that really determines what's going to happen, how you're going to respond."

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