Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Data, genetics, and aquaculture at the Royal Highland Show 

Dr Smaragda Tsairidou, Lecturer in Data-Driven Innovation and Genetics, outlines aquaculture research presented in a talk to a public audience. 

How can aquaculture and seafood production help us meet the increasing demand for sustainable protein? And in doing so, how can we address the grand challenge for aquaculture of sustainable disease control – how can big data and genetics help us address this, and why is it important?  

I explored these big questions in a talk about sustainable aquaculture and its role in food systems at the Royal Highland Show, an annual showcase and celebration for the agriculture sector that takes place in Edinburgh, with participants from all over the world.  

At the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies’ show tent, we had lively discussions with RHS participants from a range of backgrounds, and spoke with prospective students about studies in veterinary medicine, One Health, and food systems.  

It is an exciting new era, with the focus shifting towards the One Health and planetary health ways of thinking.

Dr Smaragda Tsairidou Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Seafood production – whether by conventional fishing, known as capture fisheries, or farmed fish, known as aquaculture – is a major contributor to food and nutrition security worldwide.  

With seafood, including fish, molluscs and crustaceans, being a major source of high quality animal protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients, fish are the main source of animal protein for over one billion people worldwide.  

Aquatic animal-source foods can not only complement protein and nutrient supply, but also help to reduce the consumption of resource-intensive – and in some cases less healthy - red meat and processed meats.  

But the ocean, the Earth’s largest ecosystem, is endangered owing to ocean warming, plastic pollution, overfishing and other harmful practices. In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we need to consider solutions for production that will enable us to conserve marine ecosystems and use our oceans sustainably.  

Aquaculture production systems vary substantially around the world in the degree of technology implemented and their extent of commercialisation, ranging from family-level and small-scale artisanal aquaculture to intensive production of genetically elite fish in highly controlled environments.  

Applying big data

How can big data and genetics benefit and be accessible across the whole of the sector? Although the switch from capture fisheries to aquaculture solves some issues, it creates others.  

The intrinsic links between aquaculture and other land and ocean uses, and the continuous contact between farmed marine species in the open ocean and the wild environment, exacerbate the challenge of effective disease control, against a backdrop of the race against antimicrobial resistance and the need to minimise environmental impact.  

Using big data – analysis of large data sets – together with advanced mathematical models and computational methods, we can predict resistance to disease and forecast the impacts of interventions, for example on disease spread.  

DNA codes in organisms contain information that to some extent controls observable characteristics. Changes in the DNA sequence, which are genetic mutations, introduce variation, which can be passed on from parents to offspring.  

By using genomic data, we can exploit this variation to identify, and selectively breed, individuals that are more resistant to disease. Genomic selection is being implemented by the aquaculture sector to simultaneously improve multiple traits, including better growth and disease resistance. These technologies take advantage of genetic variation that is naturally present in fish and animal populations. 

Aquaculture is a precious source of animal protein for the growing population – we cannot afford not to capitalise on it. We need to utilise new technologies to develop solutions that improve sustainability of production and address the emerging challenges.

Dr Smaragda Tsairidou Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

A few years ago, studies showed that susceptibility to Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis infection in Atlantic salmon was controlled by a single location on the genome. The findings informed the use in industry of a selective breeding technology, known as marker assisted selection, to reduce deaths from this disease to near zero.  

More recently, a state-of-the art computational method known as genotype imputation was shown to allow near-full-power genomic selection for breeding salmon more resistant to sea lice, the largest disease-related problem for salmon farming.  

This approach makes use of genotype data for a relatively small subset of the genome, which are much cheaper to obtain, making the process more cost-effective and accessible to smallholders.  

Breeding for disease resistance can be a complementary strategy to vaccination and chemical treatments for more sustainable disease control, but other emerging grand challenges, such as the need for alternative protein sources for more sustainable aquafeeds, are attracting the attention of the research community and industry. 

Related links 

Scientific publication: Optimizing Low-Cost Genotyping and Imputation Strategies for Genomic Selection in Atlantic Salmon  

Suggested reading: Sea Lice Biology and Control