That’s a lot of pressure to put on such a small creature, but we’re staring down the reality of the world’s population growing from 7 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050.
That means in the next 30 years, farmers must produce 70% more food to feed the global population. And as the middle class expands in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China, we’re going to see a whole lot more demand for animal-based protein.
"One of the industries that can help supply a large portion of humanity’s future protein needs is aquaculture. It’s the fastest growing primary industry globally,” says Professor Dean Jerry, Director of the ARC Research Hub for Advanced Prawn Breeding and Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University (JCU).
The biggest problem with farming prawns is also its greatest opportunity. Where livestock has benefitted from thousands of years of selective breeding followed by decades of state-of-the-art genetic improvement technologies, seafood has been more or less left as is.
And that’s where researchers from the ARC Research Hub for Advanced Prawn Breeding come in. They’re supercharging the breeding process of the Australian black tiger prawn, the main species of prawn farmed in Australia, to mimic what’s been going on in the agriculture industry for millennia.
"If you want to sum up our project, it’s that in five years, we’re aiming to take the genetic knowledge around black tiger prawn aquaculture, and make it comparable to the level seen in livestock production,” says Professor Jerry.
“People ask if we’re creating a Frankenstein prawn. My response is all we’re doing is what’s been done over thousands of years for livestock. This involves harnessing the potential of the prawn using targeted selective breeding and information hidden within its genome.”
Professor Jerry and his team are using several next-generation sequencing platforms to read the genetic blueprints, or genomes, of tens of thousands of prawns to identify genetic markers that can be targeted for selective breeding.
They’re now using this genomic information to focus on certain traits through selective breeding, such as growth rate, disease tolerance, the colour of the cooked prawn, omega three and fat levels, and stress tolerance.
They’ve also synthesised these genomes into the first-ever comprehensive ‘transcriptome' for the black tiger prawn.
"We’re now developing genomic selection algorithms, and will breed our second generation of animals to see how good these algorithms are at predicting the genetic merit of the prawns in the real world,” says Professor Jerry.
“We've collected genetic information on more than 60,000 prawns, which is likely higher than what anyone else has done in the world."
Professor Dean Jerry, JCU