IMAQUANIM – Understanding fish immune systems to develop efficient fish vaccines
With the world's fisheries under severe pressure from over-exploitation, and in many
cases in serious decline, society is growing increasingly dependent on aquaculture
to meet its dietary needs for seafood.
© Fotolia, 2012
Already accounting for more than a third of the total seafood production,
at 55 million tonnes in 2009 (FAO, 2010), aquaculture production is increasing
rapidly. Within just a few years, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture
Organisation, it will dominate the world fish market.
But this vital source of food is under constant
threat from diseases caused by bacteria,
viruses and parasites. Diseases can be rapidly
transmitted through water, particularly where
fish are raised in high population densities, and
the effects can be disastrous. In the 1980s,
bacterial disease devastated the Norwegian
salmon farming industry, with a total collapse
only averted by the use of large amounts of
Antibiotics, drugs and chemical disinfectants
are still used in both aquaculture and land
livestock production to prevent and contain
disease. But these can have harmful effects
both on the environment and on human health
– most notably in making human diseases
more resistant to antibiotics.
An approach focusing on prevention rather than
cure is clearly the key to a more sustainable
If vaccines could be developed to protect the
major farmed fish species, it would mark a
major step forward – not only for fish health
but also for the environment, for human health
and for the aquaculture industry itself.
In comparison with humans, however, and
despite some advances in recent decades, the
immune systems of fish and the vaccines that
might be effective with them are still poorly
understood. It was to fill this crucial knowledge
gap that in 2005, the European Commission
provided more than € 8 million of funding for
the IMAQUANIM project.
The five and half year project brought together
the expertise of 17 universities and
governmental research institutes from around
Europe, along with five small and medium
sized enterprises (SMEs). The five SMEs were
all specialists in the development of products
or technologies for use in aquaculture health.
The wide variety of partners enabled the project
to study several species, including Atlantic
salmon, rainbow trout, sea bream, sea bass, carp
and mussels, and to draw on a multidisciplinary
skill-set ranging from immunology to genetics,
genomics and molecular biology. One of the
breakthrough outputs from the project was the
production of the first complete information-set
on active genes in mussels.
By significantly increasing our understanding of
the immune systems of both fish and shellfish,
the extensive data produced by the IMAQUANIM
project were vital in providing a strong basis
for the future, to fight both known and new
diseases in aquacultured species. Tools and
techniques made possible by the project's work,
including gene arrays and immune-response
tests, will now be used to develop not only
vaccines but also feed additives to stimulate
fish immune systems and provide them with
the protection they so urgently need. Although it
is not possible to develop vaccines for molluscs,
Imaquanim will ultimately also contribute
in developing efficient prevention tools (i.e.
antimicrobial peptides) and strategies (i.e. better
site selection, selection of disease resistant
strains etc) for farmed mollusc species.
There is still much work to be done, but at a
time when fish stocks are under unprecedented
strain, the work of IMAQUANIM represents a
huge step towards developing efficient prevention
tools and strategies against major pathogens
and diseases, and towards removing a
major threat hanging over the future of every
business in the aquaculture industry.