ISA experiment tip of iceberg for genetic editing


Benchmark ISA experiment tip of iceberg for genetic editing in aquaculture

By Matt Craze Jan. 2, 2018 09:54 GMT

Aquaculture is poised for an explosion in genetic editing, as the technology has potential to improve big challenges such as disease resistance or greater feed conversion efficiency.

Benchmark Holdings started a new era for aquaculture when it announced it would investigate the utilization of genetic editing tools in researching infectious salmon anemia (ISA) in Atlantic salmon in December.

Genetic editing is an evolutionary next step following a multi-year study to fully map the salmon genome, Benchmark CEO Malcolm Pye told Undercurrent News. Genetics companies can spot a gene in a particular species that causes disease, and editing permits science to mutate or “edit” deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or the gene in a relatively inexpensive process.

“It might only be one in a million, or two of them, but to start with two and breed that gene into the whole population is a very long-winded and laborious process that might take 20 years,” Pye said. “What you want to do is turn up the frequency of that gene in the population, and gene editing is the tool for that.”

Living organisms see mutations in their bodies every day, and most of them have no effect, Pye said.

Genetic editing doesn’t involve introducing foreign DNA to an organism, making it different from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The widespread opposition to GMOs, including the European Union’s ban on GMO foods, is largely the result of the introduction of GMO crops such as soybeans without having first won over consumers, Pye said.

Benchmark will participate in the ISA study with the University of Edinburgh, the University of Aberdeen, Norway’s Institute of Marine Research, Marine Science Scotland, France’s Institute of Agricultural Research, and UK research institute the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. The Roslin Institute, famous for cloning Dolly the sheep 20 years ago, is also involved in a study to genetically edit swine to eliminate African swine fever.

Benchmark will use "clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats", or CRISPR, technology in its study. The tool, discovered in a University of California, Berkeley 2012 study, is now cheap and easy to use and has moved out of academia into commercial laboratories, said Jennifer Doudna, who was part of the Berkeley team.

Benchmark, along with Norway’s Aquagen and Hendrix Genetics, offers several natural breeding tools to the salmon farming industry. It is now ready to apply several genomic tools to improve breeding, including genetic editing, said Matthew Baranski, a scientist at Norwegian food research institute Nofima. Only 10% of aquaculture is currently based on genetically improved stocks, he said at the AquaNor 2017 conference in Trondheim, Norway last August.

Hendrix Genetics only relies on genomic selection techniques and is considering investment in gene editing research, the company said in a statement. The investment in research doesn't necessarily mean that the company will decide to go with gene editing in its breeding programs, it added.

"We need to understand the full impact of it on animals, animal products and humans," Hendrix said in a statement. "We must be convinced of the added value of gene editing before entering any discussion on commercial application. Such discussion will not only cover technical issues, but more important ethical and regulatory issues." 

Aquagen’s CEO Odd Magne Rodseth has previously said that using genetic editing could solve the sea lice issue in Atlantic salmon, by extrapolating the DNA code of coho salmon, which are immune to lice.

“Consumers are going to be faced with some tough decisions in the future,” he said at AquaNor this year.

Contact the author matthew.craze@undercurrentnews.com