“We could effectively skip what took hundreds of years of selective breeding to achieve in land-based agriculture. ”
Twenty-one years ago, sequencing an entire genome was the stuff of science fiction.
Today it is the cornerstone of production gains for New Zealand’s, and the world’s, largest primary industries.
Think of it as reading the blue print of an animal – this gene’s for colour, that gene’s for growth rate and this gene’s for taste.
As one of the country’s leading experts in the field, Victoria University’s senior lecturer in genetics Peter Ritchie explains, many industries now use an animal’s DNA sequence to produce the perfect product.
“Whole-genome analysis can pinpoint small genetic differences associated with important production traits, and we can then design precision mating and animal management systems and fast-track ways to identify superior animals for breeding,” Dr Ritchie said.
“We get quicker genetic gains across a broader range of traits and we have the flexibility to select animals for specific situations.”
The NZ dairy and beef industries have been benefiting from the technology for years but according to Dr Ritchie, it’s the aquaculture sector that has the most to gain.
“The dairy industry has a large genomics focus and the cattle industry also has a value driven genetics programme – all of those primary industries can see that this is transformational technology,” Dr Ritchie said.
“If you asked anyone in dairy, they’d say whole genome selection techniques are going to be responsible for 70 per cent of all future production increases.
“If we have a long term focus, there’s no reason we can’t get those sorts of numbers with the Greenshell Mussel.
“Aquaculture doesn’t have the history of thousands of years of domestication that’s already resulted in a series of incremental production gains.
“We’re starting from scratch so we’ve got a lot more to gain.
“With Aquaculture, we could effectively skip what took hundreds of years of selective breeding to achieve in land-based agriculture.
“Developing genomic technologies for aquaculture species would effectively turbo charge things and get some rapid progress.”
When Dr Ritchie first started working in the field in 1990, genetics made world wide headlines with plans for the Human Genome Project.
“We had just developed gene sequencing technology and they started talking about mapping the human genome,” he said.
“Some people thought it was crazy.
“They said ‘why would we want to do that’.”
The project took 13 years to complete and is estimated to have cost $3 billion.
As well as transforming our knowledge of the human body, it also revolutionised the field of genetics and made the technology a lot more accessible.
With today’s technology Dr Ritchie estimates New Zealand could sequence the Greenshell Mussel genome in around six months at a cost of about $700,000.
We’d then be in a position to develop whole-genome selective breeding programs and efficiently pick the best natural products.
“As the saying goes, yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality,” he said.
“This is not about predicting future trends, this is about keeping up.
“As a geneticist I am really positive about the potential for gains in aquaculture. Compared to land-based production animals, marine species have very large population sizes, which means they hold a very large amount of genetic potential. We just need the right tools to unlock it.
“But industry and science and government are going to have to make a decision about whether to invest and how to coordinate the resources to do it. It will take more than just me – we will need a team of researchers.
“It would require some solid R&D investment and coordinating a specific set of New Zealand’s science resources.
“We need to get scientists and industry to sit around the table, get a plan together and start working towards that plan.
“It will take industry, university and CRI involvement to build something great over the long term and I believe we can do that.”