Study set to unlock genetic secrets of lice resistance

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Scientists at the Roslin Institute and the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture are hoping to identify genes that could help to protect Atlantic salmon against sea lice.

It is hoped that the study will pinpoint key genes and associated biological processes underlying genetic resistance to the parasites.

This will include studying the response to lice attachment exhibited by Coho salmon, a species of salmon which is fully resistant to sea lice, and then applying knowledge gained concerning mechanisms of resistance to Atlantic salmon, which is susceptible.

The project is led by researchers from the Roslin Institute and the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, and will receive a total of £1.7m from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC). It is an industrial partnership award with aquaculture breeding company Benchmark Genetics.

Researchers will use data previously collected from 12,000 infected fish to identify regions of the salmon genome associated with resistance to sea lice.

They will also compare Atlantic salmon with Coho salmon to investigate the key mechanisms, genes and proteins involved in their different responses to lice.

Gene editing will be used to validate and shortlist genes and processes that could be linked to resistance, through tests examining the effects of silencing genes of interest.

Initial research will be conducted in fish cells, to identify the genes that are most likely to be involved in resisting infection by lice. These genes will then be targeted to produce gene-edited salmon embryos.

Gene editing, which enables targeted, precise changes to the genetic code, has been used in previous studies by scientists from the Roslin Institute to identify disease resistance genes in salmon, and has potential applications in aquaculture breeding to improve health and welfare traits.

Professor Ross Houston, Personal Chair of Aquaculture Genetics at the Roslin Institute, said: “Gene editing has potential to expedite the breeding of disease-resistant salmon by making targeted changes, informed by years of research into the genetic and functional mechanisms of resistance to sea lice.

“Work by our consortium aims to improve fish health and welfare, and enhance the sustainability of the salmon aquaculture sector, which is worth approximately £1bn per year to the UK economy and is a major source of employment in rural communities of the Scottish Highlands.”

Professor Ross Houston

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