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.
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.
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 future.
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.