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Salmon genetics experts aid search for better tilapia

Tilapia are a vital protein source for many people in Africa and Asia. Picture: BioMar
Tilapia are a vital protein source for many people in Africa and Asia. Picture: BioMar

Fish genetics experts at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute and Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture are helping develop a more resistant strain of tilapia, a critical source of protein for many people in Asia and Africa.


World experts recently gathered at Roslin for a two-day workshop organised by non-profit research organisation WorldFish to help shape the future of tilapia selective breeding and genetic improvement.

Based on a roadmap developed at the workshop, WorldFish will embark on new research to create more resilient fish with characteristics such as disease resistance and more effective feed utilisation. The research will use advanced techniques such as genomic selection to introduce these characteristics into its improved tilapia strains.

WorldFish harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty. Since 1988, it has used selective breeding to develop and manage the fast-growing Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) strain. The strain has been disseminated to at least 16 countries, mostly in the developing world, and is grown by millions of small-scale fish farmers for food, income and nutrition across the world.

Feed efficiency

Tools that enable the selection of animals based on genetic markers will allow selection for characteristics that are otherwise difficult to measure such as resilience and feed efficiency – techniques already familiar to the salmon farming industry.

John Benzie:
John Benzie: "Tilapia is critical for food security."

John Benzie, Programme Leader, Sustainable Aquaculture, WorldFish, and Professor of Marine Molecular Biodiversity at University College Cork, Ireland,  said: “Incorporating new genetic traits in GIFT will help fish farmers prepare for future challenges such as climate change and increasing evidence of disease risks. This will particularly benefit farmers in Africa and Asia, where tilapia is critical for food security yet farmers often have limited access to improved fish breeds suited to local conditions.”

Dr Ross Houston, Group Leader at Roslin Institute said: “Aquaculture production needs to increase by 40 per cent by 2030 to meet global demands for fish. Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) is arguably the world’s most important food fish, and plays a key role in tackling rural poverty in developing countries. The innovations in genetic improvement mapped out in this workshop are an important step toward achieving these ambitious goals.”

Disease resistance

Houston, whose group's work has included the discovery of a major QTL (quantitave trait locus - part of the genome) affecting resistance to Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis in salmon, said the project that is closely aligned with WorldFish’s six-year core research programme on Fish Agrifood Systems. The specific genetics project discussed is likely to take around three years in the first instance.

The focus trait is likely to be disease resistance, which may be related to viral disease (e.g. Tilapia Lake Virus) or to bacterial disease (e.g. Streptococcus) – but the exact target is yet to be confirmed.

Experts attending the workshop at Roslin included Brendan McAndrew and David Penman from Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture; Houston, John Hickey, Andrea Wilson, Pam Wiener and Christos Palaiokostas from Roslin; Benzie, Hooi Ling Khaw and Wagdy Mekkawy Harrison Karisa from WorldFish’s Malaysian and Egyptian research centres, and Federica Di Palma from Norwich’s Earlham Institute.

Scientists from Sweden, Netherlands and France also attended.