Scots scientists devise test to detect disease in Atlantic salmon

A new diagnostic test to detect a significant disease which can strike Atlantic salmon, and which could save the aquaculture industry millions of pounds, has been developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow.

The test can be used to detect Atlantic salmon infected with salmonid alpha virus. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
The test can be used to detect Atlantic salmon infected with salmonid alpha virus. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

The simple “early warning” test, developed with major aquaculture companies, can be used to detect Atlantic salmon infected with salmonid alpha virus, which causes Pancreas Disease.

Scotland’s aquaculture industry is worth approximately £1.86 billion annually, with the country ranking third in the world for salmon production which generates around £800 million every year.

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The disease – which is not an issue for product consumption and is harmless to humans – can cause significant losses in farmed Atlantic salmon due to morbidity, mortality and reduced production.

The researchers found affected salmon had a major change in the proteins present in the blood, and also, that these protein changes could be detected using a simple procedure.

The study findings, published today in the Journal of Fish Diseases, reveal that a test called a selective precipitation reaction (SPR), patented by the team, could potentially be developed into a rapid analysis system allowing the disease to be diagnosed much earlier than currently possible.

This would mean the test could be used at fish farms, allowing quick diagnosis and early treatment.

Current testing requires sample submissions being sent to laboratories, which can take several days before results are available.

Professor David Eckersall, professor of veterinary biochemistry and leader of the research team at the institute of biodiversity, animal health and comparative medicine, said: “The serendipitous discovery of the SPR has allowed a potentially powerful diagnostic test to be developed that could have significant applications in the future.

“This collaborative study, funded by a BBSRC CASE PhD studentship for our colleague Mark Braceland and supported by the aquaculture industry, has made a major contribution to the health and welfare of salmon.

“If this SPR test can be applied to other diseases and species of fish then the benefit will be even greater. This is an excellent example of the benefit of academia-industry links supported by the BBSRC CASE studentship scheme.”

Dr John Tinsley of BioMar Ltd said the collaboration with the university had been a great success and he would like it to continue.

“The project not only developed a highly applicable diagnostic test for the industry, but produced numerous peer reviewed articles and advanced our knowledge of fish health and welfare.”

Dr Dave Cockerill (MRCVS) of Marine Harvest (Scotland) Ltd said: “SPR gives us an opportunity to put in place an early warning system for detection of significant pathology in fish.

“In particular it appears to be a nonspecific indicator of this type of disease and this sets it apart from other diagnostic tools which test for specific known disease agents. SPR could become the early indicator that further specific investigation is required.”

The work was supported by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research Council), BioMar Ltd and Marine Harvest (Scotland) Ltd.