Quality fish from lab to plate
18 March 2013
A new company, which aims to exploit cutting-edge genetics technology to improve the quality of the fish we eat, has been launched in St Andrews.
The founders Ian Johnston and Thomas Ashton. Image: Ian Johnston
With support from local law firm Murray Donald, Xelect, a spin-out company from the University of St Andrews, is primarily focusing on the development of genetic markers which will pinpoint the most valuable of the natural variations which occur in all fish.
The research leading to the formation of Xelect was funded by the Biotechnological and Biological Research (BBSRC) with Follow-on Funding to support the research through to commercialisation, help realise the impact of the research, and facilitate the science's contribution to the UK bioeconomy.
The first products are markers for superior meat yield and flesh quality in Atlantic salmon, which are now available for licensing worldwide. The company also has a strong pipeline of markers in development for other traits and species, and can offer other genetic services such as sex determination, stock tracing and disease identification.
Salmon eggs in a hatchery. Image: Ian Johnston
Xelect was formed by CEO and Co-Founder Professor Ian Johnston, Director, Scottish Oceans Institute St Andrews and his former PhD student, Thomas Ashton, Executive Director and Co-Founder.
Professor Johnston said, "Put simply, in any population of fish, there are natural genetic variations, some of which lead to more valuable fish than others. By developing genetic markers for, say, meat yield in Atlantic salmon, industry bodies can select the fish they wish to breed from, using them as the founding population and therefore ensuring that all of the fish have a higher meat yield."
He added, "Scotland has a hugely significant and world-class aquaculture industry which exports to around 60 countries and we see our work as another strand to make it even better. Our work could ultimately improve the welfare of fish and lead to more disease-resistant and stress-resistant fish. Indeed, some of the factors the aquaculture industry has been criticised for in the past will be addressed by this technology and, with half of all fish eaten across the world being produced from aquaculture, it's vital that the end product is of optimum quality."
Salmon in a sea cage. Image: Tom Ashton
Xelect has already entered into a licensing agreement with Norwegian company Salmobreed and its Scottish arm, Salmobreed Scotland who are now licensed to use Xelect's High Fillet Yield markers for exclusive use in Europe. Fish selected with this marker have up to 6% more recoverable flesh than unselected fish, worth around £600 per tonne at current market prices. Xelect is also in talks other companies with a view to concluding licensing deals for the markers in Chile.
The company receives corporate and legal services from St Andrews-based law firm Murray Donald, an obvious choice to Professor Johnston who added, "It was important to us, from the outset, to work with a local firm who could help us turn our academic research into a commercial reality. Murray Donald's expertise of research commercialisation has guided us through a potentially daunting prospect and we will look forward to working with them on an ongoing basis as we pursue new business and trade both nationally and internationally."
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.