The scientists claim they are close to identifying the specific genes within Atlantic salmon that determine how susceptible individual fish are to a range of devastating diseases and infestations.
They are now planning to market the first salmon eggs, developed from the genetic discoveries, before the end of next year. Their work could be a major breakthrough for the £500-million-a-year fish farming sector, which spends huge sums fighting the effects of sea lice infestation and fatal diseases such as IPN (Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis).
The Argyll-based company is also planning to use the same technology in future to improve the quality of farmed salmon, including the colour, fat content and omega 3 levels thought to have an effect on human health.
Dr Alan Tinch, director of genetics at Landcatch Natural Selection, said the research team had already narrowed down the search for disease resistance to some 100 possible genes from the 30,000 genes they had first examined.
“We are closing in on the target gene all the time,” he said. “The analogy is that we used to know what country the gene was in. We now know the house and the street that the gene is in – but we don’t know which room it is in yet.
“Every step that we take in the search for this gene gets us a little bit closer, and one day we will have that ‘Eureka moment’ that says this is the gene that is causing that particular effect for that particular disease. It could happen tomorrow, in three months or in a year’s time.”
Tinch said Landcatch, in collaboration with scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Glasgow University and the Stirling Institute of Aquaculture, had developed genetics technology used in human medical research and cattle breeding to address the needs of the salmon industry.
The company had developed innovative techniques to analyse rapidly the variations in DNA sequences, which would help scientists locate a range of genes associated with disease. Although the specific target genes had yet to be pinpointed, Landcatch was using the information they had gathered over two years of research to begin breeding salmon eggs and smolts for improved resistance to disease. The company is planning to market the first eggs, developed from the disease resistance research, by 2014.
Neil Manchester, the general manager of Landcatch, declared: “The missing genes are like our Holy Grail and finding them will have widespread positive implications. Breeding fish that are resistant to lice and disease will be an incredible achievement and a major commercial breakthrough for aquaculture.”
Dr John Webster, technical director of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, said: “We are always very supportive of research and development to help the industry further underpin its long-term sustainability and ability to develop. We look forward to hearing how the project develops and what findings may be taken from it.”
Mike Russell, the Scottish Education Minister and the local MSP for Argyll and Bute, said: “I am very pleased to see an Argyll-based company at the forefront of important research that should have strong commercial and environmental benefit.”
Juvenile fish largely immune to infestations and disease will be a major boon for an industry that is expected to grow in importance globally over the next 20 years as global warming devastates agricultural crops. Aquaculture now accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the world’s food fish.
In Scotland, salmon farming is a major industry on the west coast. Almost one million fresh salmon meals are eaten every day in the UK, and salmon are Scotland’s largest food export.
However, farmed salmon are susceptible to infestations of parasitic sea lice that cause considerable stress to fish and major economic losses to the industry as well having an effect on wild salmon and sea trout stocks.
Fish that could tolerate sea lice infestation – it is known that resistance is inherited – would be a major benefit to an industry that is forced to spend huge sums every year on chemical treatments.
IPN is a highly contagious viral disease that also poses a major threat to Atlantic salmon. According to the Scottish Government, there has been a substantial number of deaths in young farmed salmon in Scottish waters in recent years.