Dr. Morten Rye is the Managing Director in Akvaforsk Genetics (AFGC) and the Director of Genetics in Benchmark Genetics, AFGC’s parent company. Besides that he is a man who is passionate about aquaculture and has been so since the early days of his career as a scientist. In AquaIMPACT he is leading Work Package 3.
“I’ve spent my entire professional career working with genetics in aquaculture. I studied animal genetics at the Agricultural University of Norway (now Norwegian University of Life Sciences) back in the eighties, and did my PhD work on aquaculture genetics. Back then aquaculture was a relatively young and modest industry, even in Norway”, Rye tells.
Rye has been with AFGC since the company was established in 1999, as a spin-off from the former Akvaforsk research institute (now part of NOFIMA). Over the years AFGC has been involved with more than 25 applied breeding programs for salmonids, marine and fresh water fish, shrimps, and mollusks across Europe, Asia and the Americas. In 2015 AFGC was acquired by Benchmark, a leading aquaculture technology company offering services and products in genetics, advanced animal nutrition and animal health to aquaculture sectors worldwide. According to Rye, becoming a part of Benchmark has given Akvaforsk Genetics new opportunities to expand its activities and the resources needed to stay at the forefront in aquaculture genetics, as well as a unique opportunity to capitalize on synergies between expertise in genetics, nutrition and fish health.
“For us it’s more than a job, in a way. We are playing our part in tackling global challenges, such as providing protein for growing population in a sustainable way. Fancy words, but this is really driving many of our activities”, Rye says.
Why genomic selection? To define the genetic potential of broodstock fish more accurately
“We geneticists have over the years developed an extensive toolbox, which now also includes genomic tools that recently has paved the way for genomic selection. Genomic selection not only offers increased selection accuracy in general, but also opens for increased selection intensity for sib traits. These are traits that with conventional selection methods limit us to select among families, and includes traits like disease resistance and carcass quality traits. With implementation of genomic information we no longer only get to choose the best family, but can identify the best breeding candidate within these families as well”, Rye tells.
This is becoming very significant component in commercial breeding programs.
“Typically growth has been the key driver in aquaculture, but now when we know how to achieve that, it’s time to look at other very important things such as disease resistance – now we had tools to do that. Genomic selection is providing the tool to more efficiently developing more resilient and stronger animals; thus it has a major impact on animal welfare as well”, Rye continues.
Many things that now are done through genomic selection in aquaculture have been part of the work with livestock for a while.
“We are still a few years behind of livestock when it comes to technology uptake, but in particular the salmon industry is picking up fast. This has to do with the scale of operations. For many other farmed species advanced genomic tools are still lacking or under development, making the technology transfer harder. However, much development work is going on, both publicly and privately funded. For many key aquaculture species genomic tools are not available off the shelf. That’s one of the differences between livestock and aquaculture”, Rye explains and continues:
“It’s been nice to see how livestock geneticists are very interested in learning about the opportunities aquaculture genetics is offering, which is part of the future solutions in food production.”
Acts to protect our wild stocks
In Rye’s opinion it’s all about wise use of valuable natural resources. To work with genetics is much more than trying to maximize profits in the sector.
“As a society we need to better utilize the limited resources available. Production on genetically improved stocks is much more biologically efficient than production on non-improved stocks. If we are using undomesticated wild stock in a large scale, we are in effect wasting critical resources”, Rye explains.
Protecting resources and using them in a sustainable way is much needed also since some of these are currently under pressure, for example due to a changing climate.
“Through well-designed selection approaches we can for example speed up the animal’s adaptation to higher temperatures, which is what nature does through natural selection. We can just help the adaptation and avoid the drop in the system that could easily happen.”
Genomic selection vs gene editing
Genomic selection should not be confused with other technologies like gene editing, or with production of genetically modified organisms (GMO). “By doing genomic selection we are not doing anything else than we have done before through conventional selection. We are still utilizing the natural genetic variation provided by nature, just capitalizing it in a better way through obtaining more accurate information about the genetic constitution of our breeding candidates”, Rye says.
Regarding gene editing (GE), Rye considers this a potential disruptive technology that may have major future positive impact for animal improvement and animal welfare. Although the GE technology is still in its infancy, it offers a unique possibility to make highly targeted and precise changes in the animals’ genome. This can be used to produce the exact same changes that can results from conventional selection, but it can be done much faster and at less cost.
“GE has a tremendous potential, but we don’t know how to best understand and utilize it. But as a food producer we have the obligation and responsibility to find that out. And this obligation goes far beyond any single company. We are not touching that topic in AquaIMPACT project but it’s definitely a part of the bigger picture. The AquaIMPACT works on genomic selection and the detection of genomic regions influencing traits will aid in understanding the potential for gene editing.”