Ask a geneticist: How genetics and genomics create a strong oyster industry future

Prof. Rob Banks (Board member, ASI). Rob has been an ASI board member since August 2018. His former positions include Director of Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit (AGBU); Director Tree Breeding Australia (AGBU); Livestock Producer Innovation (Southern Australia) – Meat and Livestock Australia; R&D Manager, Meat and Livestock Australia; National LAMBPLAN Coordinator and Board member Future Farm Industries CRC. Image Source: https://bit.ly/3lr1naF

We asked Rob Banks to give us an overview on how genetics and genomics work. This article outlines the main points about how that is being done and what is being achieved, and how developments in genomics offer exciting prospects for the future of the industry.

What is genetic improvement?

Genetic differences underpin all observed performance differences – in every species, in every trait, there are differences between individuals in their underlying genetic makeup. If we can identify the animal(s) with the best genes, and use them for breeding, we produce a population that is better and better over time.

Why is it important?

Industries can make productivity improvements by producing more and/or better product from the same or less inputs. In the case of the oyster industry, breeding better oysters is a very powerful and cost-effective way to achieve productivity improvement. The focus of improvements is likely to be in two areas: (1) decrease in cost of production traits (disease resistance, growth rate and uniformity), and (2) increase product quality traits (shell shape and meat condition).

How does ASI breed better oysters?

The ASI breeding program has a very broad genetic base, and that base is maintained year on year. This ensures maximum capacity for genetic progress in all traits into the future. The breeding program also requires very careful and comprehensive trait recording, across a range of environments and the use of pedigree information makes the selection of the genetically best families more accurate. This allows faster progress, and it enables very effective design of the mating’s to minimise inbreeding.

What has been achieved to date?

There has been a strong focus on POMS resistance through last 10 years whilst maintaining other commercial traits. Significant gains have been made, so that the stock now being released have very high POMS resistance. The gains made so far have estimated value to industry of millions of dollars per year already, even without trying to account for simply having an industry into the future. Those benefits are captured by all the growers with more future gains to be had through incorporating genomics into ASI’s breeding program.

What is genomics?

Genomics is the turbo-charging of genetic improvement that is now possible because we can read the actual DNA makeup of individuals. This has become practical and reasonably priced through the last 10 years and is now used routinely in all the main livestock and plant breeding industries.

What does genomics give us?

Genomics enables more rapid genetic improvement through early evaluation for all traits and more accurate trait selection. We can assess new individuals for all traits at birth, meaning we have potential to turn generations over faster. It also allows for more accurate trait selection by reading the DNA and looking for common patterns in DNA amongst individuals. This determines the similarity at the gene level between individuals with more precision and consequently increases the accuracy of EBVs (it gives us a more precise picture of the genetic makeup and therefore value of each individual). Genomics will also provide scope to screen material at the hatchery – to customise deployment material – so that specific locations might use specific genetic seed or spat, or specific markets might be based on specific seed.

Why is ASI well placed to move into genomics?

Genomics comes with a big dependence on data (Data! Data! Data!) on all traits of interest. ASI is uniquely strongly placed to exploit genomics because of the years of careful recording of a range of important traits, assisted by the trials conducted in a range of locations, backed by the pedigree information. Essentially, you could not design a better platform for moving into the genomics era. We can estimate the increase in rate of genetic progress possible through use of genomics, and based on this, the projections for return on investment and value to stakeholders of ASI turbo-charging its already world-leading program with genomics are very favourable.

How can ASI deliver maximum value for industry?

To ensure that the ASI program continues to deliver maximum value for industry, and to fully exploit the opportunities available through genomics, it will be important to focus on efficiency and quality simultaneously and including thinking about what traits will be important in the coming years. It’s also important to use as much trial data as can be afforded. Data is the absolute foundation and collecting good data on all traits and ideally in all the distinct production regions is vital.

Opportunities and inputs:

The ASI program has made an outstanding contribution to the viability of the Pacific oyster industry in Tasmania and South Australia, thanks to very good science, excellent operational management and the considerable inputs of growers who have assisted with trials – backed of course by Oysters Tasmania and South Australian Oyster Growers. The program has excellent opportunities to create even more value for stakeholders into the future. The potential value is measured in millions of dollars per year.

Rob’s presentation to the SAOGA Workshop and an extended version of this article are available on request. Contact Rob on rbanks@une.edu.au.


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