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SAMS is a leading centre for seaweed research.
SAMS is a leading centre for seaweed research.

Researchers from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban are a step closer to breeding disease-resistant seaweed.

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The scientists have established the genetic code for the red alga variety Porphyra umbilicalis, more commonly known as laver. They have mapped the 13,125 genes in the seaweed to help discover what makes the intertidal species so resilient, as they aim to breed marketable seaweed that can withstand threats from common diseases, reports FIS website.

The team examined the red alga’s pathogen receptors and found that its defences are unlike other plants.

Yacine Badis:
Yacine Badis: "Key to unlocking resistant strains".

“Like any living organism, algae are plagued by diseases. Understanding how they detect and defend against disease is key to unlocking the future development of resistant strains,” SAMS algal pathologist Dr Yacine Badis said.

Badis also explains that Porphyra has original pathogen detection strategies, a finding that opens exciting avenues of research into red algal immunity and its use in modern breeding programmes.

Porphyra umbilicalis can adapt to conditions on different parts of the rocky shores of the UK and Ireland and is able to withstand prolonged periods of exposure to the air as well as tolerating a greater degree of wave action than most other red algae.

The development of resilient and marketable seaweed would be of great benefit to the global aquaculture industry. However, farmed stocks are extremely susceptible to disease.

GlobalSeaweed project

The work at SAMS is part of the GlobalSeaweed project, a network of scientists advising on global seaweed policy funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

SAMS’ work has contributed to a research paper called Insights into the red algae and eukaryotic evolution from the genome of Porphyra umbilicalis, published in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Regional development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has also enlisted SAMS' expertise to assess the availability of kelp and whether wild harvesting on a larger scale would be viable.

As part of the investigation, SAMS will look at the economic feasibility of wild seaweed harvesting as a potential diversification opportunity for fishermen.

Surveys by divers

Lead researcher on the project, SAMS marine ecologist Professor Mike Burrows said: “We will initially create maps covering Scotland’s coast in order to assess overall quantities of seaweed. The assessment will consider combinations of seabed depth, wave conditions and water clarity, which are most likely to favour abundant seaweed. Surveys of smaller areas by divers and by seabed video and acoustic methods will follow later this summer, giving us an indication of potential yields for harvests.

“We are also collecting the necessary information on growth and recovery of seaweed after harvesting, as well as assessing the sensitivity of other species that depend on seaweed for their habitat, to ensure that seaweed removal can be managed as sustainably and with as little damage as possible.  Finally we are looking at how the activity can be effectively licensed and the potential economic benefits the industry could bring.”

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