Case Study: 10,000 miles apart. 1 goal.

Case Study: 10,000 miles apart. 1 goal.

Dr Marie Smedley, Senior Breeding Programme Manager.

In December 2019 two journeys began. The first started at an airport in Edinburgh as I set off for my first site visit to Petuna. The other journey was going to take a little longer: a ground-breaking selective breeding programme to ensure best fish performance in elevated summer temperatures.

Most people now know that a genetic-based breeding programme can give considerable, cumulative gains in fish size (often up to 15% per generation, depending on the species). It’s perhaps less well known that it’s also an incredibly effective way to boost other traits too, such as disease resistance or – in this case – temperature tolerance.

Breeding Programmes in a nutshell

Xelect’s relationship first began with Petuna two years ago, after an initial trial by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation under Dr Gianluca Amoroso’s lead, aquaculture scientist at Petuna. What started out as a feasibility trial evolved into a cutting edge, sustainable breeding programme that allows Petuna to select for improved performance year on year.

All photos courtesy of Petuna Aquaculture

Every genetic breeding programme is unique but, in simple terms, they work by combining genetic information with real world performance data to find the fish with the best predicted improvement on key traits. To ensure this is done sustainably for decades to come, we use sophisticated software to calculate the outcomes of millions of possible mating scenarios, and identify the optimal crosses to give high performance gains while keeping inbreeding to a minimum.

Wherever our customers are in the world we usually begin our partnerships with a comprehensive site visit (though, in the current situation we’re doing this virtually through video calls). It’s vital that we gain a detailed understanding of the company processes and commercial objectives. The team at Petuna showed me everything from the hatchery, to the sea cage site at Rowella, to the processing facilities at Devonport, getting to know the key personnel I’d be working alongside for the months and years to come. By spending time listening to our customers we can be confident that our breeding programmes are tailor-made for their setup, and will directly help them achieve their commercial objectives.

Together, apart

Working with a customer on the other side of the world requires continual 2-way dialogue, and the need to be responsive with your working pattern. Over the course of this summer (which is, of course, the Australian winter!) there have been many late evenings and early mornings as I temporarily switched time zones, to help sanity check mating schemas and give quick turnaround alterations during stripping season.

Boosting key traits

In the face of climate changing and warming waters, a key trait for Petuna is warm water resistance.

The challenge for many producers is conducting assessments year on year, for thousands of fish, as accurately as possible. This can quickly run up significant costs in equipment and highly specialised labour if managed in-house. At Xelect we like to think that our customers effectively have a fractional ownership of a dedicated genetics team, that they can scale up and down to meet their needs. The Xelect team have worked alongside Petuna to develop a sophisticated bespoke genetic toolkit that routinely assesses warmer water resilience. This toolkit includes high-throughput image analysis to select for fillet colour, powerful functional markers and genetic comparison of mortalities and survivors over summertime.

The programme is just one part of Petuna’s commitment to creating a truly superior product for their customers.

Major milestones

The journey that began in 2019 reached a significant milestone this year. In 2020, for the first time, Petuna will be using the first batch of eggs with genetic selection for warm water resilience. Because genetic gains are cumulative (and increase in every generation) it won’t be long before Petuna start to see very significant improvements.

I recently asked Dr Gianluca Amoroso what the breeding programme means to him.

I believe the breeding program is showing very encouraging results in a relatively short period of time, and has quickly engaged employees at all levels. Everybody now understands the value and potential of the breeding programme with people continuously encouraging us to breed stronger, better, “climate-proof” fish. Working with Xelect is a pleasure. Their team is highly skilled and competent. Furthermore, thanks to their sound understanding of commercial reality, they communicate very clearly strategies and results and are always ready to assist with tailored solutions

Next-Gen genetics

As a close partner, we’ve also been working with Petuna to develop some revolutionary new techniques called Smart Genomics, which use cutting edge statistical tools to give incredibly accurate genomic-based breeding selections at a fraction of the price of a full genomics. Genomics is the ‘gold standard’ for breeding programmes, but the higher cost has – until now – put it out of the reach of most producers.

Working with Petuna we’ve made significant advances this year, and we are both looking forward to seeing what happens next in our journey together.

To find out more about Xelect’s genetic breeding programmes email

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