A Scottish aquaculture firm is leading the world in applying state-of-the-art genetics technology to salmon to produce more robust, disease-resistant fish.
Landcatch, based at Ormsary in Argyll, has now taken delivery of the first batch of SNP Chips, cutting-edge genomic selection tools that will allow their scientists to take the next step in pinpointing inherited traits in individual fish DNA.
SNP Chips are glass slides used to analyse variations in DNA sequences, or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), which act as biological markers and help scientists locate a range of genes associated with disease resistance.
Genomic selection using SNP Chips is already routinely applied in crops, cattle, pigs and chickens but Landcatch is the first company to apply the science to salmon.
Landcatch supplies genetic services and Atlantic salmon eggs and smolts to the aquaculture industry. It uses selective breeding to develop strains of salmon which can perform to ever higher levels at every stage of production from eggs to adult fish.
The firm is part of the global Hendrix Genetics multi-species food production organisation whose mission is to help the world meet its food needs through innovative and sustainable genetic techniques which inform their breeding processes.
Dr Alan Tinch, director of genetics at Landcatch, said: “The chips are now ready to use on Landcatch fish. We will be starting right away working out the best way of using them, and in 2014 they will be routinely deployed in our Scottish programme to improve sea lice resistance and other traits in salmon.
“At the same time we will begin to use the new technology in Landcatch breeding programmes in Chile to improve the traits important to our international customers.
“We are the first salmon breeding company to be doing this. We have done a lot of background work to get to this point and now it’s time to start the real evaluation on Scottish salmon. It’s a new chapter in a very exciting story.”
The chips are used to correlate variations in SNPs with performance. There are many millions of markers in every species, and these can be used as milestones on the DNA map. Scientists, who previously examined only five markers for one salmon gene, can now interrogate 250,000 markers to look at 20,000-30,000 genes.
The technology means Landcatch geneticists are now able to get a much more detailed, digital-quality description of the genetics of individual fish. Previously, accurate information required measuring many thousands of fish over many generations. But now the best fish for breeding can be identified very quickly using hundreds of thousands of SNPs for each fish.
The work to develop the SNP Chips, led by Dr Alastair Hamilton of Landcatch, is being undertaken with a number of commercial and academic partners, including Edinburgh University (Roslin Institute and the GenePool Laboratory), Stirling Institute of Aquaculture, Glasgow University and Affymetrix Inc, with support from the UK Technology Strategy Board.
The arrival of the SNP Chips is another landmark for Landcatch which in 2007 was the first aquaculture company to be involved in work to pinpoint a gene controlling resistance to Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis (IPN) which poses a major threat to Atlantic salmon.
The company later also proved that sea lice resistance is inherited, subsequently producing juvenile fish which were less susceptible. This allowed breeding from selected pedigree families and increased genetic resistance in each new generation.
Work by Landcatch and its partners in this field means it is getting ever nearer to becoming the first in the world to locate the genes that determine how susceptible individual Atlantic salmon are to certain diseases.
It is on target to have this science for sale and already applied to their salmon eggs by 2014.
In what will be a major breakthrough for the industry, eggs and smolts will then be produced to selectively breed healthier, disease resistant salmon and other fish as the technology can cross over to other species.
The work accelerates the pace of progress and will help breeders and researchers examine traits in individual fish and better understand their general survivability, omega-3 level and grilsing – or maturing – rates.
It will mean improved quality products and an acceleration of genetic techniques in farmed fish which the industry and commentators, including the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, believe is necessary to address world food shortages caused by climate change.