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UK marker technology a boost for global fish farming

Copyright: Ian Johnston, University of St Andrews

Salmon – the so-called king of fish – commands a premium price for consumers but it is also costly to produce compared to many other farmed fish. New genetic tools being developed and licensed by spinout company Xelect Ltd are adding value to salmon production in Scotland and abroad by increasing yield and quality.

Xelect was established by Professor Ian Johnston and Dr Tom Ashton in 2013, building on technology and expertise developed within their research group at the University of St Andrews. In the early 2000s, whilst funded by BBSRC through two LINK grants and one Industrial Partnership Award, the pair were approached by Young’s Seafood to help them understand the genetic factors that affect the quality of salmon flesh. To do so, Johnston and Ashton developed methods to accurately measure the texture of salmon fillets – now used for quality control at Young’s.

Data breakout

£1.75Bn Value of aquaculture to the Scottish economy
50% Global proportion of all fish consumed from farmed sources
80M tonnes Quantity of fish needed to maintain the current global level of per capita consumption by 2050

The collaboration also gave Johnston the opportunity to identify genetic factors that influence fillet yield, enabling him to pinpoint two genes which, when selected together, were associated with a 4% increase in fillet yield – a boost that Johnston estimates could be worth about £600 per tonne to producers. And with production of Scottish farmed salmon at its highest level in a decade – more than 163,000 tonnes were produced in 2013 and worth an estimated £667M at farm gate prices – this added value could equate to around £97.8M in increased annual revenue to the industry.

Subsequent BBSRC Follow-on Funding enabled the researchers to validate their markers with other producers in Scotland, Norway and Chile. The data enabled them to negotiate an exclusive European licensing deal for their technology with the major salmon producer Salmobreed A/S, as well as a trial licence to apply their technology to marker assisted breeding on salmon farms in Chile with the UK company Landcatch Natural Selection.

The future for Xelect looks bright, having made a profit in its first two years and increased turnover in its second year by 50%. The company employs five full-time staff and is expanding into traditional breeding with genetic testing (for paternity and relatedness) as well as applying their technology to other fish species (rainbow trout, Nile tilapia and barramundi) and to different traits in salmon.

Read the full impact evidence report: