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Cracking the Genome Code for Sustainable Fish

by the Fish Site Editor
01 December 2008, at 12:00am

CANADA - A trio of new Genome BC research projects istaking a genomics-based approach to tackle specific challenges within theProvince's fisheries and aquaculture industry - and could mean significantenvironmental and economic benefits for fisheries management and the health ofour oceans.

The research will provide scientific data to inform Fisheries and Oceans Canada's (DFO) fisheries management decisions and support the long-term sustainability of aquatic resources in BC at a time when the health of Canada's oceans is being affected by pollution, disease, development and climate change.

"These research projects will add significantly to Fisheries and Oceans Canada's understanding of the coastal ecosystem and support the long-term sustainability of commercial, recreational and First Nation fisheries in BC," said the Hon. Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. "Strong collaboration by Canadian scientists from Government, universities, and industry has great potential to enhance the management of fisheries and aquaculture in the Province, and the health of our oceans."

Each of the three projects will take a genomics-based approach to tackle specific challenges within the Province's fisheries and aquaculture industry - and could mean significant environmental and economic benefits for fisheries management and the health of our oceans.

One fisheries challenge is managing BC's wild salmon industry valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. Recent declines in a number of wild salmon populations and extreme variability in their annual return to spawning grounds indicate their currently uncertain long-term viability.

While it seems that climate change plays a role, scientific information on the physiological ability of salmon stocks to adapt to shifting environmental conditions is badly needed.

Enter Dr. Kristi Miller (DFO) and her team of co-investigators who one of the latest in a series of Genome BC research project aiming to deliver targeted results within two to three years.

Valued at $5.3 million and co-funded by NSERC, DFO, and the Pacific Salmon Commission, the project, entitled "Genomic Tools for Fisheries Management (FishManOmics)," will characterize genetic markers (known as biomarkers) which can be used to assess the overall health and condition of migrating fish stocks.

"The conditional biomarkers from this genomics program will provide a new tool that can be used to predict how well salmon will adapt to the environmental conditions they will encounter as they migrate. By merging genetic and genomic technologies with environmental data, we will build a new generation of models that can predict where the salmon are going and what their probability is of getting there," says Miller.

The research will aid fisheries management by providing valuable genomic data on fish survivability during migration, genetic adaptability to high water temperatures, and developing biomarkers to assess the condition of the migrating fish.

Miller emphasizes the need to make fisheries sustainable by targeting fishing where the salmon are strong and healthy and avoiding the harvest of sensitive populations. "This research will help us ensure that we always have enough fish going back to the spawning grounds each year in order to maintain our wild stocks," she says.

Dr. Simon Jones is also concerned with BC salmon, but more so by the health impacts of sea lice, which live on the skin of both wild and farmed varieties.

In an $918,000 project, entitled "Genomics in Lice and Salmon (GiLS)," Jones (DFO) along with fellow Project Leaders Dr. Ben Koop (University of Victoria), Dr. William Davidson (Simon Fraser University) and Dr. Grant Murray (Vancouver Island University), will use genomics to understand the interaction between hosts (salmon) and pathogens (louse).

The data they collect will help to explain the impact of environmental variables in the prevalence of louse infections - their origins, as well as potential therapeutic targets such as drug development.

"During an infection, we want to know how the host is responding to the parasite and how the parasite is responding to the host," says Jones. "This information will allow us to identify ways in which we might intervene, such as drug targets in the parasite, and immunological responses in the host which could be useful in vaccine development."

Jones points out the project's potential use in planning of Aquaculture management. "We already know that there are differences in susceptibility even among species of Pacific Salmon, and the new knowledge gained from this project will help us determine where to situate salmon farms, away from the susceptible fish."

The project is co-funded by University of Victoria, DFO, Marine Harvest, Greig Seafood, Mainstream Canada, Microtek Research & Development, BC Ministry of Agriculture & Lands and Vancouver Island University.

A third Genome BC project will employ common species of Pacific marine mussels to help gauge the environmental impact of factors such as climate change.

Entitled "Development of a Health Assessment Tool for Marine Mussels," is a project valued at $399,092 led by Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith (Vancouver Island University) and Dr. Stewart Johnson (DFO).

By assessing the mussels' genomic response to environmental fluctuations, the team will develop a genomic tool that will allow them to accurately assess the health of coastal zones, increase the sustainability of ecologically managed aquaculture operations, and monitor the progressive effects of the changing environment.

"As sedentary organisms, mussels are more accurate bioindicator species for natural and man-derived influences, than mobile species such as fish," says Gurney-Smith. "By identifying genomics biomarkers and monitoring their genomic expression patterns, we can also monitor the impact of environmental stressors such as climate change and assess stress in animal health in farmed populations in different coastal habitats."

Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC, added "We are proud to be supporting these valuable projects, which will deliver genomic tools that will help sustain BC's environmentally sensitive and economically vital coastline."

the Fish Site Editor