Feeding the world

Research Policy Office
Friday 8 April 2016

Half of all seafood consumed now comes from aquaculture. Aquaculture production has grown by 6.2% a year since 2000 and by 2012 it had reached 66.6 million tonnes worth U$144 billion. Less than 10% of production currently uses genetically selected strains which have the potential to dramatically improve yield, sustainability, and the welfare of farmed livestock. In the face of increasing environmental constraints, the use of genetic selection will need to become the norm in order to meet increasing demand for seafood as the human population grows to an estimated 9 billion by 2050.

Prof. Ian Johnston

Research carried out on fish physiology and genomics over several decades by Professor Ian Johnston and his group in the School of Biology led to an understanding of the genetic control of growth and fillet yield in Atlantic salmon, Scotland´s most important food export. The Biotechnological & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) provided £883K funding in support of this research via Follow-on funding, two LINK grants and an Industrial Partnering Award. Marker assisted selection (MAS) is regarded by many as the future of aquaculture breeding. In MAS natural variations in gene sequence are identified which produce large gains in characteristics of commercial interest such as growth, yield and disease resistance. This enables improvements in a single generation compared with the decades required with conventional breeding programs. The Johnston group discovered natural variants of two genes which when selected together produced fish with 4% more fillet worth £600 per tonne. Last year global production of Atlantic salmon was £1.43 million tonnes.

The discovered genetic markers were patented and in Dec 2012 Professor Johnston and Dr Tom Ashton formed a university spin-out company, Xelect Ltd, to commercialise the research. The company licensed its patented genetic marker for enhanced fillet yield in Atlantic salmon to SalmoBreed A/S which is part of Benchmark Holdings, one of the world´s leading breeding and genetics companies. Xelect has since developed similar genetic selection markers for increased fillet yield in Nile tilapia which have been licensed license to Genomar A/S, the world’s leading Tilapia breeding operation with operations throughout SE Asia. Nile Tilapia is a tropical species with an annual production of 3 million tonnes – 15% of which is for the fillet market. Using Xelect´s genetic markers, broodstock can be identified that will produce offspring with 4% more meat worth U$124 tonne. The company has an active program of research to develop markers for other traits and species and has received funding from the EU H2020 programme, Innovate UK and Scottish Enterprise. Xelect is also sponsoring academic research, including a BBSRC Industrial CASE PhD studentship at Aberdeen University and a project to support a biosecure hatchery in the Shetlands for blue mussels co-funded by the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre.

Xelect also leverages its expertise in molecular biology and seafood to provide genetic and flesh quality analysis services to an expanding range of business in the aquaculture supply chain. Exports now make up 60% of the company´s turnover. Xelect is becoming a strong, well-recognised brand within the industry based on a reputation for scientific excellence and exceptional customer commitment. The BBSRC recently published an Impact Case study on Xelect providing an example of the successful translation of basic academic research into a commercial enterprise with widespread societal benefits.

Visit the BBSRC webpages to read more.

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