Led by Rutgers University, a consortium of 14 shellfish geneticists from 12 East Coast universities and government agencies has won a five-year, $4.4 million grant from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to develop new tools to accelerate selective breeding to support oyster aquaculture.
Ximing Guo, distinguished professor and renowned shellfish geneticist at Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, is the lead principal investigator for the project, which will advance the pace of genetic improvement by identifying genes responsible for desirable traits, such as disease tolerance. Improved broodstock will then be made available to commercial hatcheries thereby sustaining the rapidly-expanding $90 million enterprise of farming eastern oysters, Crassostrea virginica, along the East Coast.
The East Coast breeding consortium was formed to support the industry so that hatcheries could provide domesticated lines with desirable traits. For example, over many generations, researchers from Rutgers and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science developed varieties of oysters that are now quite tolerant of MSX, the parasite that essentially wiped out much of the oyster harvest in the mid-Atlantic. Other traits, such as faster growth rate and meatier oysters, have also been substantially improved.
The improvement of traits for the eastern oyster, however, is a regional endeavor. With a native range from Atlantic Canada through the Gulf of Mexico, eastern oysters display clear physiological differences among regions.
“Oysters tend to be adapted to local environmental conditions,” explained Guo. “One goal of our project is to develop genetic strains that are adapted to different regions along the Atlantic Seaboard.”
According to Guo, several years ago consortium scientists were able to sequence the oyster genome, providing new tools to make direct associations between the genetic code and important traits.
“The team will develop a tool called a “SNP chip” to detect variations across the genome, and through a process called genomic selection, these genetic markers will help identify the best performing oysters,” he added.
Once the markers associated with economically important traits are identified, breeders along the East Coast will be able to select those broodstock that carry the superior genes.
“While disease resistance is the most important trait for the eastern oyster, we hope to use the same technology to select for other desired traits, such as fast growth and hardiness.”
Other aspects of the project will evaluate the usefulness of genomic selection to address emerging issues, such as resistance to ocean acidification or tolerance to hypoxia, a condition in which oysters are deprived of adequate oxygen supply.
The Eastern Oyster Breeding Consortium comprises 14 research scientists from 12 institutions located along the East Coast from Maine to North Carolina. The team includes the top oyster genetics researchers from Rutgers, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Northeastern University Marine Science Center, Stony Brook University, University of Maine, Cornell University, Morgan State University, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. The Consortium is strongly supported industry support from the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.