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Genomics Cracks Open Shellfish Health Mystery

US - In the world of marine mussels and other shellfish bivalves, looks can be deceiving when it comes to health.

“A major problem with bivalve populations is determining whether they’re healthy, sick or in-between,” said Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith, Research Scientist at Vancouver Island University’s Centre for Shellfish Research (CSR).

Most people have heard the expression ‘happy as a clam’, but the truth is we do not have any “tools” to determine if a clam is happy (healthy). Genomic science can provide the necessary tools.

“This is one of the specific challenges within BC’s shellfish aquaculture industry, and in fact, it’s a world-wide problem. Marine bivalves such as mussels, oysters, clams and scallops may appear healthy one day, but be dead a few weeks later.”

According to Gurney-Smith, the shellfish aquaculture industry in BC has lost $10 million in sales in the past two years because of mass shellfish mortality events.

“We don’t know why,” she said.

Working with Dr. Stewart Johnson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Gurney-Smith hopes to find the answer. The two scientists recently received a $400,000 grant from Genome BC to develop a new genomic health assessment tool for marine mussels.

The research team will collect mussel samples from various shellfish farms in BC and conduct controlled laboratory experiments at the CSR’s new genomics lab at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. Animal tissues will be transported to the sophisticated Genome BC lab on the mainland to identify gene sequences.

“We’ll be looking for the genes involved in the stress response to factors such as temperature, salinity and handling” she said. “Hopefully through our research we’ll be able to rank how each factor affects the shellfish and then tell farmers what to look for and how to avoid placing their animals in stressful situations. The information we produce will have direct industry application to support, for example, proper site selection and facilitate rapid innovation in husbandry and handling practices. At the end of the day, shellfish farmers should be more successful and profitable.

“There is another aspect to our genomics research that is equally important and that is using mussel genomics to assess environmental issues such as climate change and marine pollution monitoring,” said Gurney-Smith. “As sedentary organisms, mussels are a more accurate bio-indicator species for natural and man-derived influences, than mobile species such as fish. Having the proper genomics based assessment tools will allow us to monitor changes in the coastal marine ecosystem. This will have significant environmental and economic benefits for fisheries and aquaculture management and the health of oceans.

The research partnership between Genome BC, the CSR and the DFO is incredibly exciting.”

Genome BC are truly leaders in the field of gene sequencing, says Gurney-Smith. Having their support and access to their facilities and labs will be critical to success.

“The fact that we have academia and governmental research linkages right here in the same community is a huge bonus.”

As the research gets underway, Gurney-Smith hopes to involve graduate and undergraduate students during the coming year. She recently received funding from Western Economic Diversification to fully equip her genomics laboratory with the state-of-the-art equipment necessary to conduct this research.

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.

“This research project 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.”

the Fish Site Editor

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