Aquaculture for all

Auburn researchers report blue catfish genome breakthrough

Genomics Catfish / Pangasius +3 more

An Auburn University research team has become the first to map a high-quality genome assembly of the blue catfish - one of the keystone species of the US aquaculture industry.

Auburn University postdoctoral student Baofeng Su

Su is part of an Auburn research team that recently became the first to map a high-quality genome assembly of the blue catfish. © Auburn University

The genome, which was published in the journal GigaScience, is essential for genetic improvement using gene-editing or genome-assisted selection and will aid in the genetic enhancement of better catfish breeds for the multimillion-dollar catfish farming industry, according to a news release from Auburn.

Catfish farming is the largest aquaculture industry in the US, accounting for approximately 70 percent of the nation’s total aquaculture output. The primary fish utilised for farming purposes is a hybrid produced by breeding male blue catfish with female channel catfish.

“The hybrid catfish is superior in growth and disease resistance,” according to Xu Wang, assistant professor of comparative genomics in animal health, who is one of the leaders of the project.

“Faster growth means more profit. Originally, farmed fish were primarily channel catfish, but three major bacterial pathogens resulted in a 40 percent loss of production and annual economic damage of over $100 million in the US industry alone. The hybrid mix of the blue and channel catfish has improved disease resistance and reduced mortality by half.”

Even so, Wang says there is a critical need for further genetic improvement using genomic methods.

“The channel catfish genome was mapped in 2016 by John Liu’s lab at Auburn [now at Syracuse University], but the blue catfish genome was not available until we published it,” Wang added. “Our high-quality blue catfish genome addresses the urgent needs to achieve the long-term goal of improving growth, feed utilisation, stress and disease resistance and reproduction.”

Wang served as senior author of the GigaScience paper, assisted by Haolong Wang, a doctoral student in biomedical sciences. The veterinary researchers collaborated closely with a team led by Professor Rex Dunham, an internationally recognised authority in the genetic enhancement and gene editing of catfish.

“This is a fantastic step forward,” Dunham said. “There have been many genetic enhancement projects related to gene transfer and gene editing that were not possible for blue catfish without it. As a result, we could not do parallel work with what we are doing with channel catfish. Since a hybrid between channel and blue is the best genetic type for the catfish industry, that also put limitations on what we could do with these tools to improve the hybrid.

“That roadblock is now gone. Having the blue catfish genome available opens a huge treasure chest of markers we can use for other approaches, such as marker assisted selection, and also gives us many more tools to distinguish and track different genetic types of blue catfish. Thanks to this research, we are much less limited than before.”

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